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Does it Really Matter When Snow Leopard Appears?

When Apple first delivered its low-key introduction to Mac OS 10.6 last year, they said it would be out in “about a year.” Nothing has changed since then, although speculation about Snow Leopard’s possible release date ebbs and flows on a fairly regular basis, no doubt when there’s not a lot of Apple Inc. news to write about.

So late last year, it was suggested that there would be a major demonstration of Snow Leopard during the keynote address at January’s Macworld Expo. It didn’t help, of course, when Steve Jobs declined to participate and sent Philip Schiller as his replacement.

This is not to say that Schiller couldn’t give a credible demonstration of Snow Leopard, but a presentation of this sort wouldn’t be terribly graphic After all, most of the new operating system’s changes are supposed to be below the surface, and just showing how easy it will be to connect to a Microsoft Exchange server wouldn’t be visually appealing.

Regardless of the reason, Snow Leopard wasn’t mentioned during that keynote, one regarded as lackluster not because of the quality of Schiller’s performance, but because of the lack of compelling new products to discuss.

So maybe 10.6 isn’t visually appealing, at least compared to previous versions of Mac OS X. Indeed, it may also be true that Snow Leopard’s official debut was still far in the future as of the beginning of the year and there was no real need to show the work in progress when there’s lots of work left to be done. If the rumor sites are correct — and that’s not always a given — a new user interface, known as “marble,” will make its debut in Snow Leopard.

Based on what we have been told, it would appear to be mostly a smoothing and perhaps a darkening of the look and feel of Mac OS X, more in line with iTunes and such. Perhaps Apple wants to add some visual fluff to make Snow Leopard more salable, a more compelling upgrade for you.

If that’s the case, I can understand the logic behind a decision of that sort. You see, just saying Snow Leopard will be faster, use less RAM and take less hard drive space isn’t sexy. How many of you really care about such arcane features as improved 64-bit support, better support for multicore processors, and the ability to offload work to the graphics chips?

Sure, maybe all this stuff will make for a more efficient, more reliable Macintosh. But it’s also going to be a hard sell to explain the value of all these advancements to the average customer. To be sure, except for those of you who stretch your Macs to the limits with such tasks as high-energy gaming and 3D rendering, Snow Leopard’s improvements may not prove all that significant.

So it comes down to this: Does Snow Leopard’s debut make any difference? Not that it won’t be a good product. Personally, I have great hopes for it, whether it has a user interface refresh or not. Some of my work could benefit from better support of my Mac Pro’s twin eight-core processors, and I would hope that developers will take advantage of the enhanced tools to make that possible. However, does Apple stand to suffer if that “about a year” promise means September instead of — say — June?

I realize that there is a potential competitive threat on the horizon, in the form of Windows 7. Indeed, Microsoft, a company that has rarely seen a successful product they don’t want to imitate, is touting Vista’s successor as being faster, less bloated. Sound familiar? All right, there will also be a little more eye candy, such as a revised Windows taskbar that resembles Mac OS X’s long-controversial Dock. There will — or at least that’s the promise so far — be support for Multi-Touch. That’s hardly original either.

Should Windows 7 get an official release before the holidays at the end of the year, I suppose some will hope that Apple will have a worthy competitor, assuming that the regular version of Leopard isn’t up to the task. I think it is, but a two-year-old operating system may seem like yesterday’s news, which is unfortunate.

In any case, none of the analyst predictions or rumors pinpoint Snow Leopard as being late in any respect. If it’s going to be fall, so be it. That won’t make a significant difference in Apple’s ability to compete with Microsoft.

What might be more interesting is the upgrade policy. With Windows 7, Microsoft is going to resort to the same multiple-SKU confusion as Vista, and I expect upgrade pricing will continue to be excessive. Apple could really pull a coup here and make Snow Leopard free — or almost free — for Leopard users. Of course, those who still have Tiger would have to buy a standard upgrade package for $129 for the single user version.

I don’t see a decision of that sort as seriously hurting Apple’s profitability, since most of their earnings for new operating system upgrades disappear after the first few months of release. After that, the new system just sells the hardware on which its preloaded. End of story.