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  • Attention Apple: Please Make Snow Leopard Free!

    February 9th, 2009

    Notice, gentle reader, that I use the word please, since I don’t want to make this request seem closer to a demand, although I certainly feel strongly about the subject.

    Now why should I make this request? Well, in one sense, the 10.6 release is similar to 10.1, in that it cleans up the system and makes it function faster and more reliably. Of course, the original 10.0 was, according to Apple, meant to be a product for early adopters and folks who might be considering the possibility of moving their companies to Mac OS X.

    Those of you who tried it at the time realize it was quite messy. Features were missing, including CD burning. It was slow as the blazes, and you had to wonder whether this fancy piece of eye candy was really worth it. Indeed, I kept using Mac OS 9 for my “real” work, other than writing books about Mac OS X of course. Even 10.1 took us only part way there, and I didn’t transition completely to Mac OS X until 10.2 arrived.

    But the situation with Leopard is vastly different. Mac OS 10.5 is a fully-realized reference release, in use by millions and millions of Mac users at home or in the office. While I realize some of you still regard it as too buggy, most of you seem to be generally satisfied, although it’s the right of Mac users worldwide to complain loudly when they feel it’s appropriate.

    As you probably know, Leopard’s successor, Snow Leopard, is clearly meant as a strong under-the-hood refinement. The visual changes are apt to be extremely minor. You won’t see enhanced support for Microsoft Exchange (it’ll just be there when you need it for your email setup), and even if the Finder migrates from Carbon to Cocoa, the changes won’t necessarily be visible either. That assumes, of course, that there will not be any significant visual changes, and a few will be welcome. But that’s yesterday’s column.

    This doesn’t mean that Apple isn’t working, in secret, on a few hundred significant interface alterations, but I really doubt it. For one thing, except for a few highly-competitive issues, developers need to have full access to a forthcoming operating system release in order to test their products, present and future, against it.

    Indeed, Snow Leopard seeds have been available to the programming community since last year’s WWDC. While they are provided under strict confidentiality agreements, Apple knows that some folks who don’t believe in contracts will nonetheless rush to a Mac rumor site and spill the beans. The one significant issue to be disclosed so far, beyond what you can read on Apple’s site, is that the prereleases are only designed to run on Intel-based Macs.

    Of course it’s also true that the last PowerPC model, the G5, was retired in the summer of 2006, so there’s less incentive to continue to invest in R&D, except for security and critical hardware support issues.

    But the main reason I suggest that Apple give away Snow Leopard is because operating systems are strictly a means to sell Mac hardware, from which Apple makes the lion’s share of its profits. Despite the demands of some uninformed media pundits that Apple is missing the boat in refusing to open Mac OS X to PC clones of all kinds, such a boneheaded maneuver would only destroy Apple’s earnings and profits, as anyone with a calculator at hand will realize after examining the financial statements and doing the math for themselves.

    Up till now, Apple has sold Mac OS X upgrade kits on the basis of large numbers of visual feature enhancements. Snow Leopard is the catch-up release, where the underpinnings are cleaned up and performance is enhanced. True, that may itself be sufficient reason to pay $129 for the privilege of getting a copy, but it’s not going to seem terribly sexy from a marketing point of view.

    On the other hand, telling loyal Mac users that they can get Snow Leopard as a free download, or on a DVD for, say, $9.95 shipping and handling, would be a great publicity ploy.

    Compare that, for example, with Microsoft’s approach for Windows 7, which is also presented as mostly a performance and reliability enhancement for the failed Vista release, along with a few interface flourishes. However, Microsoft can’t give up its greedy ways, because they have already announced the usual half dozen confusing variations, and even if pricing is reduced, I doubt it will be by very much.

    Of course, Microsoft doesn’t sell computer hardware, other than input devices, so they can’t just give a new operating system away, or can they? After all, 80% of the income generated by Windows comes from the licenses they sell to computer makers. That business plan doesn’t have to change for them to offer upgrade kits to existing PC owners for a relatively cheap price.

    Such a thing won’t happen of course. But I can see good reason for Apple to confuse and befuddle Microsoft yet again by providing Snow Leopard free and clear. Isn’t that a terrific idea?



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