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And Now for Something Completely Different: Will You Buy 10.5?

Aren’t you glad this isn’t another article about Apple’s transition to Intel chips? Besides, isn’t it time to take a further look at the possibilities of the version of the Mac OS that’s no doubt destined to compete against Longhorn, or whatever Microsoft calls its next version of Windows? To be sure, there will be plenty of pressure on Apple to come up with another 220 new features.

Now I don’t want to underestimate the creativity of Apple’s operating system developers, but I expect this is going to be a whale of a job. When you look at Tiger’s list of new features, you can see Apple has stretched the limits of the definition of the word new as far as it could. In many cases, the changes are under the hood, meaning only programmers will care about them.

But it’s not just a matter of finding different ways to enhance Leopard, and certainly Apple is giving itself plenty of time to get the job done. The projected release date is late 2006 to early 2007; in other words, up to two years after Tiger first shipped. That will allow you to fully recover from the $129 you spent on Tiger, and you’ll be ready to take out that check book or credit card once again to place an order.

Or will you?

You see, it’s very possible that Apple is going to face the same dilemma Microsoft now has to deal with, and that’s the fact that it’s getting harder and harder to convince customers to buy a new operating system. Despite the fact that Windows XP has been around since 2001, a huge part of Microsoft’s user base hasn’t upgraded. Some regard Windows XP has just a warmed over version of Windows 2000, and they’re sticking with the latter. This puts Microsoft in a somewhat uncomfortable position, because it is officially phasing out support for the older operating system.

True, many of those customers are businesses that are extremely cautious about operating system upgrades, which can represent a far more drastic change than moving to a newer version of Mac OS X. In many cases, they plan to wait until they buy new computers with Windows XP preloaded. That way, the uncertainties of the full upgrade process will never be confronted.

In many respects, the same situation will hold true for Longhorn. The larger portion of upgrades will come in the form of new hardware. It has been years since Windows users were willing to line up in front of a computer store to buy a new operating system, as they did when Windows 95 first came out. What makes it worse for Microsoft is the fact that it had to jettison key features to keep Longhorn’s ship date from slipping still further, and it’s definitely not certain that there won’t be further delays.

In fairness to Microsoft, it has a lot harder job Q&A job than Apple. In the scheme of things, there is a comparatively small number of Mac variations to test an operating system upgrade on, dwarfed in comparison to the wild west atmosphere in the Windows world. It’s not just the confusing lineup of overlapping product lines in the catalogs of the major PC box makers, but the huge numbers of home brewed computers that are assembled by power users from the local parts bins. I rather suspect that if Apple dared allow Mac OS X to run on vanilla Intel hardware, it would confront similar compatibility issues.

In any case, where does all this leave Leopard? It will, of course, be the first full Mac OS upgrade to be delivered after the transition to Intel chips begins. Macintels shipping before 10.5 arrives will simply use warmed over versions of Tiger, with only enough changes to ensure compatibility with the new hardware. The Intel version of Tiger will otherwise be identical to the PowerPC version.

So there may be some incentive on the part of owners of Macs with Intel Inside to buy an operating system that may be better optimized for the new hardware. A large portion of Leopard’s sales will, naturally, come because it’ll be preloaded on new Macs. But how many of you would be willing to buy it for your existing hardware? Can Apple come up with enough compelling features to entice you to buy a copy?

Sure, upgrading the operating system on a Mac is nowhere near as perilous as it is in the Windows world. The outcome is far more certain, the percentage of failures a whole lot less. It may be less a casual process than it was in the days of the Classic Mac OS, but can still be a set-it-and-forget-it process for most of you.

But will piling on the eye candy, and perhaps adding some new system toys be sufficient? Will it just be more of the same, or is Apple preparing to amaze us all over again? Will Leopard be the operating system that truly changes the paradigm of personal computing? It’s been a long time coming. Today’s Mac OS, shorn of the prettier icons, is, aside from Spotlight, used in pretty much the same way as Mac System 1.0 back in 1984.

No doubt Apple has the 10.5 concept already on the drawing boards, but it also has nearly two years to rejuvenate the personal computing universe, change the world as it did back in 1984. But will it be up to the challenge? That remains to be seen.