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Should Apple Rush Snow Leopard?

Since making a low-key announcement about 10.5’s successor last summer, Apple has been, publicly at least, extremely quiet on the subject. The preview at Apple’s site remains substantially unchanged, at least as of the time I’m writing this article. And the expected release date, ” in about a year,” hasn’t been altered.

To the surprise of many, Apple said nothing about it at Macworld Expo. Then again, Snow Leopard is not supposed to be visually distinctive compared to Leopard. Most of the changes, such as improved support for multicore processors, and the ability to offload processing chores to the graphic chips, are under-the-hood and difficult to demonstrate. Certainly the improved ability to support Microsoft Exchange servers won’t do much to the look and feel, other than to alter or add some preference settings in Address Book, iCal and Mail.

But this hasn’t stopped the tech press from attempting to read the tea leaves and coming up with a few possibilities here and there that may or may not be true. Some quote Mac developers as suggesting that the Finder has migrated from Carbon to Cocoa. But the underlying programming isn’t going to impact most users, unless the revised Finder is visibly different, and/or performs far more reliably than the current version. That, however, remains unconfirmed.

Other reports talk of revisions to the QuickTime Player interface and perhaps a new interface color scheme that has been labeled “marble.” But Apple remains silent about that too. This sort of speculation also has it that Apple is actually working on fairly substantial interface changes, but is withholding them from the developer community until the last minute, perhaps until the WWDC.

From a logical point of view, however, if Apple wants to deliver Snow Leopard some time this summer, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to suddenly unleash changes of that magnitude. It would give software publishers precious little time to modify their applications to take advantage of those changes, assuming the alterations aren’t just restricted to the color scheme.

At the same time, Microsoft is supposedly on track to release the final or release candidate version of Windows 7 a few days from now. Early reports indicate that it’s actually a fairly good operating system upgrade, and that it addresses many of the performance shortcomings of Windows Vista. There will also be a new taskbar, one that, in part, largely emulates Mac OS X’s Dock. Another change will be an XP compatibility mode, which will allow Windows users to be able to run older applications without running into difficulty. That feature, which will evidently be available as a downloadable module, recalls the Mac OS X’s now-departed Classic mode.

Well, when Microsoft is going to imitate something, they sure look to a good source.

Assuming that there are few serious issues with the planned last prerelease version of Windows 7, Microsoft is expected to ship the final version late this year or early in 2010. As with Vista, upgrade costs are apt to be exceedingly high. While Microsoft will charge an estimated $50 for OEM licenses to PC makers who will bundle Windows 7 with their new hardware, ordinary customers have to pay several times that figure for the very same product. I suppose Microsoft will argue, though, that any customer who buys a few million licenses at a time is entitled to a special discount.

As for Snow Leopard, while some media pundits suggest that the release may actually come in time for WWDC, the general consensus is that it’ll happen some time this summer, perhaps in August. Regardless, it’ll be out way ahead of Windows 7. Certainly there’s no incentive to push to fast towards release. Apple has plenty of time to make sure it’s well baked before it hits the release stage. Besides, previous versions of Mac OS X, by and large, seem to have been released a little too early and thus they were rather bug-prone.

The other consideration is Apple’s planned upgrade policy, and we’ll certainly know that by WWDC. That seems certain to me. Here the expectations are all over the map. I agree with some, including my friend Adam Engst, of TidBITS, that Snow Leopard should be given away free or, if required by accounting rules, sold for a modest fee, perhaps $19 for a single user license.

Certainly Apple has an incentive to want to get Snow Leopard onto as many Macs as possible, and I presume it’ll be, as has been reported already, Intel-only. It would surely reduce support expenses, and it would also allow developers to move full steam ahead to make their applications fully compatible with all the new features that are guaranteed to improve performance tremendously. That’s particularly true for software that taxes your Mac’s processors.

As to those who have PowerPC Macs: Well, the handwriting has been on the wall for quite some time. Adobe and other companies have already produced Intel-only versions of some of their new products, and that’s a trend that you can expect to increase over the next year.

Sure, these older Macs have plenty of life left in them. They can still run reliably as productive tools for home and business users. But Apple wants you to upgrade. That’s what keeps them in business, and maybe the arrival of Snow Leopard will help speed up the process. That is, if the economy cooperates.