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  • The Snow Leopard Report: How About Free?

    June 26th, 2008

    All right, we know that Snow Leopard will be, for all practical purposes, a wholesale cleanup of Leopard. Most of the surface features, save for Microsoft Exchange support, will be essentially identical to 10.5, although I suppose there might be some refinements here and there.

    But the real stuff will happen out of sight, in the guts of the system where the plumbing will be cleaned up, the operating system’s footprint will be reduced, and key performance enhancements will be added. It’ll also support up to 16TB of RAM, which may not mean much to you now, but it might a few years hence.

    Indeed, Snow Leopard is laying a foundation that will pave the way for 10.7, 10.8 and beyond, and that is a good thing.

    However, I doubt that many of you would want to pay $129 for a copy of a glorified fixer-upper, without the requisite 300 whizzy new features. That psychology, that potential customer resistance, is going to be very difficult to overcome. I mean, you just know that software publishers have traditionally packed loads of new features — sometimes at the expense of good quality control testing — to induce you to buy an upgrade. Microsoft is notorious for this sort of behavior, admitting that their present version of a product isn’t so good, but just wait till the next one is out.

    I suppose in the early days of Mac OS X, Apple had to make that sort of claim as well, because 10.0 was barely usable, and 10.1 in fact, was an almost free upgrade. I mean “almost free,” because you could get a free upgrade package from an Apple dealer, but you’d have to pay $19.95 to get a copy shipped to you from the factory.

    By the time 10.3 and 10.4 arrived, you could have seen how well Mac OS X had matured, but you still depended on all those glorious new capabilities to induce you to buy the upgrade, assuming you didn’t just wait for the opportunity to buy a new Mac and get the OS upgrade free of charge.

    Of course, Apple’s been lucky of late. Windows Vista has been a disaster, although I realize some of you use it with reasonable success. But with customers begging to downgrade to XP, you can see where Microsoft must feel highly embarrassed. Vista’s successor, Windows 7, is now promised for January of 2010, and you can probably expect that date to slip somewhat. That’s the way things are at Microsoft, unless the new management decides to hunker down and get the ship sailing on the straight and narrow and remedy all the festering problems that have made the company stagnant.

    In this climate, Apple can well afford to take stock of the progress of its operating system development program, and concentrate on fixing things that don’t deliver lots of wow reactions.

    So how should Apple handle the Snow Leopard upgrade?

    Well, as a practical matter, it would sure be nice to see them emulate 10.1 in their marketing approach. You’d go to your local Apple dealer and get the upgrade kit free of charge, but it would only work with an existing 10.5 installation. If you needed to install from scratch, you would be forced to buy the full installation package at the standard $129 purchase price.

    If you ordered from Apple directly, maybe you’d be asked to pay $9.95.

    But what about providing the upgrade as a free download? Sure, maybe it would be a file as large as three gigabytes or more, one that would take hours to download unless you have a speedy broadband connection, but it would be a great alternative, even if it would probably clog Apple’s servers for days on end.

    Then again, there may be accounting issues that would make the free alternative impossible, in the same way that Apple has to charge a modest fee for you to get the iPhone 2.0 software for an iPod touch. Such arcane issues are perhaps understandable, at least to those who are more cognizant than I of such matters.

    In that event, it would still be possible to make this a relatively cheap upgrade, and a price tag of from $9.95 to $29.95 would make perfect sense. It would be a wonderful gesture on Apple’s part, particularly since their customer base has afforded them huge profits over the years. Certainly, the bean counters would be sufficiently satisfied.

    However, if they choose to offer Snow Leopard at the full upgrade price, I think it’s going to be a hard sell. Those promised performance boosts are largely theoretical, unless you perform heavy-duty rendering chores that max out your Mac’s processors. Saving a few hundred megabytes in storage space would be nice, in theory, but I don’t think it’s a compelling feature. Exchange support? Only for business users who require connections with the office email servers.

    As usual, Apple isn’t listening to me, but if enough if you make your wishes known, perhaps the summer of 2009 will be a time to celebrate a new Mac operating system at a super cheap price! Or maybe you’ll just buy a new Mac with Snow Leopard preloaded and not worry about it.

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    26 Responses to “The Snow Leopard Report: How About Free?”

    1. Dana Sutton says:

      Well, Snow Leopard is going to be a lot more than a “glorified fixer-upper.” But there’s another reason for arguing that it ought to be free, or at least very inexpensive. By dropping the need to write G-5 code, it’s going to make life a whole lot easier for Apple’s coders. And yes, it will give Apple the chance, so to speak, to pause and clean up its act by improving the OS’s underpinnings. Also, I suspect that whatever new features it does contain will primarily consist of new hooks that allow present and future Apple mobile devices to interact more and better with the Mac. Which won’t exactly hurt sales. Gene is right, of course there will be an ultimate payoff for everybody in future versions. But the immediate payoff of Snow Leopard for Apple itself may turn out to be much more visible than any similar benefits for us consumers. So why, one might ask, should we be expected to pay for an upgrade that benefits Apple a great deal, and us comparatively little?

    2. If you do the sort of work for which Snow Leopard is specially optimized, you will benefit quite a bit. One also hopes it’ll be more stable than Leopard, which still has some teething pains at least for some of you.


    3. rwahrens says:

      I don’t know, but I think that Apple should be able to get the full price. After all, they are doing the same coding work they’d do for a full user-featured version. So it’ll cost them the same as if they’d added a bunch of new features.

      I think if you spend more time telling people about the advantages we’ll see from faster, better optimized code, etc., people will build the expectation that it’ll be worth paying for. Yeah, keep telling them it’s no great shakes for Joe Schmoe, and Joe’ll expect a free ride.

      Just from the little I’ve seen since WWDC, I’ll gladly pay full price for it. Besides, if I time it right, I’ll also get a new laptop, so I won’t need to buy a family license this time around!

    4. Bo says:

      Actually, I’m more inclined to pay for a cleaned up, stable and faster version of an OS than I am for a feature-rich upgrade where I am reasonably certain that many (most?) of the new features will be buggy and less functional that the advertising department lead us to believe.

    5. Dave Barnes says:

      I am willing and happy to pay. Family pack for $199 list for my 5 computers is a very good deal.

    6. I am willing and happy to pay. Family pack for $199 list for my 5 computers is a very good deal.

      I realize a fair number of my readers would appreciate Apple’s hard work and the under-the-hood improvements. By and large, though, the public has been trained to expect fancy features when they pay for a software upgrade. I don’t see Apple winning that argument.


    7. Yacko says:

      Has anybody yet noticed that the name is Snow Leopard, and the previous one is Leopard? Since when did two consecutive cats have name/species similarity? I think this is significant. I think whatever Leopard does, Snow will do better. Yes it is optimized, yes it establishes a branch point for new future technologies, but I also think it will be a final look-see of the PPC code and will optimize, stabilize and seal that off. Perhaps as a final “gift” for the loyal customer, perhaps just that the next two major revisions of Quicktime or what have you, don’t freak out the remaing PPC machines.Otherwise what is the point of linking the two names? I doubt it is some random choice. My bet is that the 3g iPhone is out, Jobs now has the programmers, some who work code for multiple devices, and Microsoft is a tangled spaghetti code illustration of what not to do. Why not look at everything and set the Intel transition right? I say it still will include the G4s and G5s and will be cheap or free, at least in some cases. Perhaps the coming 3g iPhone is such a cash cow that Apple can absorb the hit. To paraphrase Jobs, – we double our R&D and development budget whenever the economy is in a down phase, all the better to take advantage when the economy turns around. Microsoft is futzing around with “touch” on large screens while Apple is optimizing code for multiple processors and file systems (ZFS). Which future do you want?

    8. SteveP says:

      You buy an OS – or upgrade – for what it can do for you and how well it does it. NOT for splashy features. Though those ARE nice for advertising.
      SOME people can actually use most of the new features.

      However, IF all this ‘clean-up’ – AND the new features that WILL be there in 10.6 – even if not “Time Machine” or “Spaces” – actually speeds up the OS by even 5-10 % – then you HAVE got an OS upgrade that provides almost EVERYONE a benefit in what it can do for them and how it does it. AND it will open the user up to an increase in what OTHER DEVELOPERS are able to provide you and thus even more of an increase in value.

      So, again sorry, to all the nutters that don’t think people should or will PAY for this value. Don’t like it? Don’t buy it. IF it doesn’t PROVIDE you with VALUE you shouldn’t be upgrading anyway! If it does, PAY!

    9. rwahrens says:

      Keep an eye out for RoughlyDraftedMagazine, Dan says his next installment will be the myth of the free Snow Leopard upgrade.

      He usually has some pretty good points!

    10. DanY says:

      I just read an article about a Yankee Group survey showing that 80% of businesses surveyed have some Macs in use, double the percentage from a couple of years ago.

      Completely speculating, wouldn’t it be a game-changer if Snow Leopard’s new multiprocessor technology turned out to be so good that Windows applications under Fusion or Parallels would actually run significantly faster than Windows native on the same or equivalent hardware?

    11. Keep an eye out for RoughlyDraftedMagazine, Dan says his next installment will be the myth of the free Snow Leopard upgrade.

      He usually has some pretty good points!

      I’m sure it’ll be a compelling argument. But I’m equally sure that only a small number of the people who might upgrade to 10.6 separately from a new machine purchase will ever see it.

      In the end, it’s up to Apple’s marketing people and Steve Jobs to make that decision.


    12. ScottN says:

      Gene- you overlook the obvious point that it will be free for most people. Operating systems are mostly distributed as an included feature when one buys a new computer. Most mac users don’t pay for upgrades, they get the latest OS upon making a purchase of the mac.

      That said, it will be up to Apple to decide what to charge for an off-the-shelf copy. Since most of your audience are presumably mac power-users, it would seem strange for them not to be inclined to pay for an upgrade if it benefited them sufficiently. If not, then why the fuss?

      Apple does have a pile of cash at the moment, so they could well decide to discount or give away Snow Leopard, but whatever the case I will likely purchase it at whatever price is asked, or wait a few months until I buy a new machine.

      I think this issue of way overblown, and am surprised to see otherwise thoughtful commentators make a big deal about this. The much bigger deal is the fact that Apple is brave enough to make an OS with ‘no new features’. I wish more major developers would do the same.

    13. The first quarter sales of a new OS amount to a huge cash cow for Apple, so I don’t think they’d want to cheap out.

      We’ll see.


    14. Sponge says:

      In a way I guess we’ve become a little spoiled by regular system upgrades with a lot of new features, and I think that’s good. Apple should provide us with new tools and better user interfaces if they expect us to pay $129 every couple of years. If Snow Leopard is essentially an under-the-hood system overhaul, then I agree with Gene that it should be cheap if not free. I remember paying $69 to upgrade to 7.6, which was essentially a fix for the incredibly unstable 7.5. It was worth it, because my system worked reliably again, but looking back I think I got taken. I paid for 7.5, and it should have worked reliably. 7.6 should have been a free upgrade, and so should 10.6 if reports of its technical focus are true.

      In general the whole situation bothers me. Just the necessity of a release such as Snow Leopard is worrisome. It reminds me of Microsoft. Maybe Snow Leopard should be called Leopard SP1.

    15. I’d opt for a $50 upgrade vs $129. It’ll be a very tough sell for most users to pay the price for largely under-the-hood optimizations.

    16. John says:

      First off, you are a little premature with this article. Let’s wait a year and see what features actually make it into Snow Leopard and then we’ll see if it will interest the man on the street.

      Second, Steve’s comment may have been a little off-the-cuff. Perhaps he meant that there would be no big changes to the appearance of the OS. Under the hood it sounds like there will be a lot of changes which could be promoted as features. I’m excited.

      Suppose Snow Leopard is released in September. Next year’s WWDC will see the release of the actual feature list and we can then take sides on how much Apple should charge for it.

    17. Hoby says:

      I agree. Bug-fix versions should always be free or nearly free, even when they’re major version numbers or rewrites.

      Software versions to charge for should provide new methods of process and new capabilities. There should be some obvious and compelling reason to pay for an update – a value that correlates to new possibilities for the customer.

      Fixing faulty code has value too but only insomuch as it works to restore a product’s expected value from the damage any faulty code has inflicted upon its customers. It cannot be considered an additive value and should not be marketed as such.

    18. Dana Sutton says:

      I agree that a software publisher should exercise what the lawyers call “due diligence” in identifying and correcting bugs, and I think it is a generally understood thing in the software industry that the cost of producing maintenance upgrades is rolled into the original purchase price (even if some publishers, such as Adobe, sometimes fail to understand either of these points — don’t get me started on the sad story of Dreamweaver CS3!!). On the other hand, even on the basis of the little we know about it now it is clear that Snow Leopard is going to be much, much more than a bugfix upgrade.

    19. addicted says:


      I agree with you, but what you say does not apply to Snow Leopard, because the primary assumption, that it is basically a bug-fixing release with no new features, is false.

      There are several new features in Snow Leopard, including Exchange support (huge for many), Quicktime X (I guess you could call this similar to a change from DX9 to DX10, which MS was banking on to sell a few more Vista copies), Better support for 64 bit (MS sold a completely different version of Windows which had only this difference from the 32 bit version it sold), many useful under the hood NEW technologies (Grand Central, OpenCL, ZFS support).

      So as hopefully is a little clearerer, Snow Leopard is more than a glorified bug fix release. Also, after the “surprise feature” debacle with Leopard, I am quite confident Apple has kept at least a couple of features under the wraps, so they dont embarass themselves if these features are not complete in time.

    20. John says:

      Philosophical question: If Apple were to reengineer something under the hood, rewrite it to make it run faster, more reliably, use less memory, without changing the feature is that a bug-fix or a new product/upgrade?

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