On Raising Unreasonable Expectations

April 30th, 2009

One of the downsides of a company as secretive as Apple is that customers and the media will feel compelled to speculate about new products. Some of that speculation will be true, some of it not, but it’s usually hard to know in advance which predictions will pan out except through logic, reason and a lots of good luck.

The biggest downside of all is that, if the predictions all point to a single product or service, expectations increase. Folks come to believe such a thing to come from Apple in the near future. If the product is an upgrade to one of the existing lines, it creates the annoying prospect that sales will dip temporarily as customers wait for a revision.

If the revision doesn’t arrive, then Apple suffers from lost revenue. This happened to some degree after the original migration to Intel processors was announced during the WWDC in 2005. In one fell swoop, all of Apple’s Mac hardware was rendered obsolete, kaput. Originally, the transition was expected to be completed in 2007. Yes, that’s what they said back then.

Now it turned out that the sales impact was, according to Apple, not so severe, and they managed to get most of the Intel-based Macs out beginning in January 2006, months ahead of schedule. The transition was over by the summer of that year with the introduction of the original Mac Pro.

For the most part, the new x86 Macs were actually quite reliable. The basic designs weren’t altered that much, except in a few cases, beyond reconfiguring the internals to accommodate new logic boards. However, there were some notable early adopter issues, such as hot-running MacBooks and MacBook Pros. With modifications to the cooling system and basic design revisions, today’s Mac note-book runs noticeably cooler, by the way.

I can see, in retrospect, a dual-edge sword here. Apple’s vaunted reputation for superb hardware reliability was diminished somewhat because of the early teething pains on the Intel-based note-books. If you look at the surveys published by Consumer Reports, for example, you’ll see that other note-book makers match Apple for the most part, and a few exceed them.

That was then and this is now.

Ahead of the WWDC and the fall product introductions, which would generally involve new versions of the iPod, you can see where tension is building.

We know, because Apple said so, that they are working hard on iPhone 3.0. We also know a few additional details because some of the developers who have worked with the new firmware and programming tools have evidently breeched their confidentiality agreements to let us in on the ongoing status. The final release will happen this summer, no doubt along with a new lineup of iPhones.

What form will the new iPhones take? Well, there are published reports that Apple is hiring graphic chip designers, perhaps with the expectation of building new embedded hardware for the iPhone and iPod. However, hiring people doesn’t guarantee immediate results. Indeed, it make take another year or two for the products emerging from these design initiatives to go into production. Meantime, Apple will continue to rely on third party manufacturers for their parts, which basically means that other companies can build gear with the same components.

However, just because the makeup of these gadgets can be duplicated doesn’t mean the software is the same, and that’s Apple’s huge advantage. In addition to the new iPhone software, interest is growing in the status of Snow Leopard. It is widely expected that there will be a full demonstration at the WWDC, but that the actual release date may be a few months later, but still ahead of the release to manufacturing of Microsoft Windows 7.

Even though Apple claims Snow Leopard will have mostly internal changes compared to the standard version of Leopard, and the promise of much greater performance and reliability, some still suggest that major feature visible changes might still happen. A new user interface, closer in concept to iTunes, might appear.

The problem with raising expectations for Snow Leopard is that, if it ends up being little more than Apple has stated so far, a speed-up release that streamlines the plumbing, will you be disappointed? I suppose you would if the price of admission remains at the standard $129. However, if it is given away with a modest fee, sufficient to meet accounting regulations, that may make a huge difference in its potential uptake. I’ve been thinking in terms of a $19 fee, but I suppose even $49 wouldn’t seem excessive for most of you.

Apple could present a cheap Snow Leopard as a thank you for loyal Mac users, and also as a way to get as many of you to upgrade as possible. Although it will likely be limited to owners of Intel-based Macs, having the vast majority of the user base on a single operating system will make it easier for Apple to continue to test and improve Mac OS X. It’ll also make it easier for developers to take advantage of the new features.

It’ll also make it easier for tech writers like me, since we’ll have fewer operating systems to write about. Then again, I haven’t said anything about Tiger in months, and 10.5 discussion could also vanish in the haze before long. Meantime, it’s also possible that Apple will still amaze us in the months to come, so stay tuned.

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8 Responses to “On Raising Unreasonable Expectations”

  1. Pat S says:

    Talk about raising expectations. $49 for a year and a half of OS development or they could give it away. When do the software engineers get paid? Seems the press thinks performance has no value. Here’s an idea, buy a new machine when SL comes out and you get SL for free. If your productivity improves 20% and you get paid 50$ per hour how long is the payback for a $129 piece of software? When I’m stuck paying 60$ for a game on the Xbox 360 I think a major upgrade to a OS is worth the cost. Don’t expect Apple to give the software away. They have invested just as much time/money in building SL as they did Tiger and Leopard.

  2. @ Pat S: Apple has — what? — $28 billion in the bank. They made record profits in the March quarter compared to previous years. I don’t think they have any problem whatever paying their developers. It doesn’t all have to come from OS upgrade sales. Most copies of Mac OS X are preloaded onto new Macs, so the income comes from the total sales price. Selling Snow Leopard for a cheaper price won’t hurt Apple one bit.


  3. Peter says:

    One issue with the rumor mill and all is “what is iPhone 3.0”?

    Is it new hardware? New software? All of the above? Some of the above?

    For example, I’m hearing lots of people yammer about a new iPhone being released at WWDC. But that new iPhone will still be running iPhone OS X 2.1, because Apple has said that they won’t be releasing iPhone OS X 3.0 until late summer. Or will they wait and introduce both iPhone 3.0 OS X and a new hardware platform at the same time?

    Personally, I’m waiting on iPhone OS X 3.0 and an iPhone with an OLED screen (needs more battery life) before I can write my killer app… :^D

  4. @ Peter: iPhone 3.0 is the software, which will run, with all or most features, on existing models. There will also likely be a third-generation iPhone out, but I don’t expect to see it ship before the software is ready.


  5. Constable Odo says:

    Heck no, I wouldn’t be disappointed if they trimmed the fat and made Snow Leopard run faster and especially if OpenCL is able to utilize all those extra cores on a graphics cards. I’m not particularly impress with an OS with lots of glittery graphics. As far as I’m concerned Leopard could lose some features and I’d say good riddance to them. I mostly want it to be extremely stable and be usable on older hardware. So many people think an OS is good or worthwhile paying for just because it’s loaded with hundreds of features. Screw that. I’ll pay for an OS that’s quick and lean that’s merely an interface between an application and the processor.

  6. DaveD says:

    I don’t expect Snow Leopard to be given away. It would be a nice gesture for Apple to say “Thank You” for the continuing and growing support.

    Apple provides the whole widget. That widget comes from the designers, hardware/software engineers, contract manufacturers, marketers, etc. That widget does no good without sales and support. A purchase of a Mac, iPod, and iPhone contain costs of the widget. The “Apple Tax” is a misnomer. Which is why the current Microsoft commercials are so misleading.

    With Microsoft you can see what a bad OS can do to a software business. Will current Windows XP users flock to 7 to upgrade? I don’t think so. Windows XP happens to be good enough.

  7. Richard says:


    It would be nice if what you suggest came to pass, but I think it more likely that the only thank you we will get will be from the sales clerk after you have paid for Snow Leopard.

    As you identify it, the problem Apple faces is getting the users to both upgrade to hardware capable of running Snow Leopard and those whose hardware will run it to upgrade from Leopard.

    Those of us who cling to G4s and such will simply be left behind. It is inevitable. At some point Apple have to leave legacy hardware/software behind. I think this is that point. My G4s will run and do productive things for some period of time, but I will need to get a new machine to benefit from the software changes coming…hopefully from Adobe. I just hope that Apple does not screw up and ship a bunch of ‘road apples’ that will turn everyone off. One more road apple for me and that could be it.


    What I have seen of Win 7 is that consumers are somewhat likely to move from Win XP to Win 7 if the hardware requirements that have been published are actually true. Consumer Vista users are more likely to make a rapid change because all reports are that it works better/faster than Vista.

    Corporate users are another matter entirely. (The USAF has reportedly gotten M$ to make a special “secure” version of Win XP for them.) State and Municipal Government users will be debating whether they stick with M$ at all. Linux may make greater inroads into this market than many presently expect. The savings per user can be substantial.

  8. DaveD says:


    The hardware requirements for Windows 7 are similar to Vista. The big difference is the improved system performance of 7 after reworking Vista.

    If the consumer Windows XP user is on an ancient PC, an upgrade to Windows 7 (or a Mac) will occur when the machine bites the dust. Moving from XP to 7 will require a clean install. For power or tech-savvy users, it would be no problem. With the other XP users, you would probably get a puzzled look when asked if you do backups.

    Corporate users would wait for Windows 7 to “aged” a bit before installing.

    Vista users should get a free upgrade to 7 from Microsoft as a “mea culpa.”

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