In Mac OS X's relatively brief history, it was a sure thing that each new version would be replete with whizzy new features in addition to the normal range of under-the-hood enhancements. This all reached a peak with 10.5, where Apple boasted over 300 new or improved features.
However, Leopard's stability appears to be a mixed bag. While my experiences are, by and large, extremely favorable, you don't have to spend much time with Google to locate a spate of complaints about one thing or another. In fact, there are reports that a 10.5.4 update is being rushed out soon to address problems created by 10.5.3.
So far all the speculation about 10.6 had it that it will carry the baggage of another few hundred new features, but Apple has taken a different tack. Snow Leopard is meant to be a leaner, meaner beast, and compelling new features are few. The one that seems most significant for the business user is native support for Microsoft Exchange 2007, which will allow Mail, Address Book and iCal to be full citizens in that environment.
That is largely an extension of the capabilities arriving soon in iPhone 2.0 in the wake of Apple's licensing of Microsoft's ActiveSync technology. In fact, you have to wonder whether there's as much of a need for Office for the Mac now that one of its key features is becoming a part of Mac OS X, and file translation of Office documents works fairly well in iWork '08.
Now maybe Microsoft realizes this, but if they can sell more hugely-expensive Exchange packages to businesses who are embracing Macs and iPhones in increasing numbers, they may still gain decent profits from the experience.
The one sour note for Microsoft, however, is that Apple is going to be incorporating its push technology not just in the cloud, with its new MobileMe service, but in Snow Leopard Server. It won't cost a dime extra, which means that something to match Exchange's industrial-strength groupware capabilities will be available from Apple for a far lower price, just by buying its server operating system. That, by the way, comes free (with unlimited seats to boot) with the purchase of an Xserve.
In Apple's brief information on the client version of Snow Leopard, they also talk of enhanced support for multicore processors, which means that those super-powerful 8-core Mac Pro workstations will have more to do when you're engaged in heavy-duty number crunching. Right now, the performance boost from these Intel Xeon processors isn't as high as you might expect, and is sometimes barely perceptible. Of course developers will have to do their part to harness these enhanced capabilities.
Rounding out the lineup isÂ OpenCL, which will offload more processing chores to your Mac's graphics chip, and QuickTime X, said to be a major rewrite and streamlining of Apple's multimedia technology.
Although developers who attend the WWDC are being given a Snow Leopard preview, the details are under the usual confidentiality agreements, and thus you'll get mostly snippets about what's happening. It's still an open question, for example, whether 10.6 will retain support for PowerPC Macs, although it's likely you'll still have Rosetta to run older applications on Intel models.
Right now, Snow Leopard is due in "about a year," meaning roughly the summer of 2009, perhaps to coincide with the next WWDC. However, there's enough wiggle room to extend that date to the fall, or even a Macworld 2010 debut.
If it's Intel-only, it'll deliver great benefits to Apple, because they can strip the binaries of PowerPC code and make the files a whole lot slimmer. No more 450MB updates. They can also work harder to optimize performance and even exorcise a whole lot more bugs a lot faster, because they'll be able to do their Q&A testing on fewer models.
As for PowerPC users, in the middle of 2009 there will be a lot more Intel Macs in use than those still running boxes with the older chips, and the youngest legacy models will be at least three years old. That's timeframe is a little light in terms of Apple's previous policies, and it might be a controversial move if it's followed. Should Snow Leopard slip to early 2010, though, the psychological impact won't be near as serious.
However, since 10.6 will be largely a bug fix and enhancement release, I dare say Apple shouldn't assume they can get away with charging the full $129 retail price for a copy. Unlike a feature upgrade, it should have at most a token charge, say $19 or, at worst, $39, for a copy for existing 10.5 users. Only those upgrading from scratch would have to pay the full retail price.
Even better, I really think Apple would do right by its customers to make 10.6 a free download. That would certainly be a welcome gift, particularly for those who have embraced Mac OS X through bad times and good for so many years. It's not as if Apple's profits would suffer seriously, and it would make great PR.
Windows 7? What's that?
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