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The Snow Leopard Report: Selling Updates Without New Features

Before Mac OS X took over, I wrote a book about Microsoft Office 2001. When Mac OS X arrived, Microsoft ported their office suite over, as Office X. Although they charged their standard upgrade fee for the suite, there were actually very few new features to talk about.

One, as you recall, was “multiple selections,” which allowed you to choose snippets of text from separate items in a document. While Microsoft was all over this one as a great new feature, other software had it for years. But this was the sort of thing Microsoft pulled with Office X. Touting all the work that went into the upgrade, they skimped on features. It was all about the Aqua look and not a whole lot more.

I’m sure a lot of you were upset about this little stunt, although Microsoft redeemed itself in large part with Office 2004. The jury is still out on Office 2008, which ditched Visual Basic for Applications. Yes, VBA will be back some day, but it does appear Office 2008 is selling decently anyway, from what Microsoft is telling us.

In any case, other companies have pulled what some consider the same scam from time to time. Way back in the ’90s, QuarkXPress went from 680×0 to PowerPC and again you paid for a new version that was short on features, but at least it ran native in current machines sporting the new processors from IBM and Motorola.

In the case of Quark Inc., customers have always been upset with the company for one reason or another, although the new management claims to have worked hard to repair their tarnished reputation in recent years. Right now, they are boasting that the forthcoming QuarkXPress 8 will blow the market away, but it will be interesting to see if Adobe does something in InDesign CS4 to continue the great game of leapfrogging. But at least, when you upgrade to the latest and greatest from Quark, there will be little doubt you are getting a feature rich upgrade. Indeed, I’m sure that Adobe CS4 will also offer lots of compelling reasons to entice you to get the new version also.

To be sure, with rare exceptions, customers on both the Mac and PC platforms have come to expect that a software publisher will promise lots of fancy new features with a major version upgrade. It doesn’t count that they might be spending millions of dollars recoding a product for a new platform, or at least a faster one. Saying a product has fewer bugs and runs faster isn’t enough to entice the public to buy.

Or at least that’s been the psychology of software updates for a long, long time.

In fact, some companies are often criticized for adding bloat and fluff to their applications rather than getting down and dirty and fixing long-term problems. Take Microsoft Word 2008, which, though it was transitioned to an entirely new programming environment in order to be available in a Universal binary, still has problems with window management that have persisted for years.

And a few shortcomings too. I mean, is it so much to ask Microsoft to let you open a Word document on the page that you were working in when you quit the application? Why must you start from page one all over again. This may not mean something for a small document, but when you’re dealing with hundreds of pages, you also have to wait for the text to be repaginated each and every time. That can also add a minute or two to the process, even on the very fastest Macs on the planet.

There was an article in the late, lamented Byte magazine years ago in which the author complained, fruitlessly it turned out, about software bloat. One of the prime complaints was that developers piled features on high, and relied on faster computers to keep the performance levels constant, or even deliver a little more snappiness.

Certainly, Microsoft Vista is notorious for being the ultimate — and certainly tragic — exercise in bloat. It runs measurably slower than its predecessor, XP, and may not even deliver the full range of graphical niceties even on current hardware.

This is not to say Apple is immune from such criticism. Back when Mac OS X was first being demonstrated, one of Apple’s product managers boasted to me that it would run on an original iMac with “good performance” with no increase in RAM. We all know none of that was true, of course. Mac OS 10.0 was a slug, and 10.1 was only a hair better. It took quite a while for performance to hit parity with the Classic environment, and it’s a sure thing that a lot of those improvements come from the hardware. Intel-based Macs, even from the beginning, ran Mac OS X faster than PowerPC models of supposedly similar performance. Curious!

So I suppose Apple is to be commended for taking pause and doing what they can to trim the waste and froth from Mac OS X in delivering Snow Leopard. A smaller footprint appears to signify that code will be optimized and perhaps dead wood will be discarded. Not being a programmer, and the ones who have copies of Snow Leopard are under nondisclosure contracts with Apple, I couldn’t say what Apple is doing, other than the limited details being offered online. I presume we’ll get more information closer to the release date next year.

This little exercise makes me feel optimistic that Apple is making a concerted effort to improve its flagship software from the ground up, rather than touting another 300 features, most of which will be useless anyway.

Microsoft? Well, they promise Vista’s successor, dubbed Windows 7, will arrive at the beginning of 2010. They won’t claim it’ll be a leaner, meaner operating system. Instead, they have already begin to tout some of its spiffy new features. They’ll never learn.