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The Snow Leopard Report: How About Free?

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.