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The Snow Leopard Report: Features or Refinements?

The conventional wisdom — which is seldom conventional — has it that Apple and Microsoft must tout loads of flashy new features to justify asking their customers to pay for their ongoing operating system upgrades. That may be true, all right, but it only presents part of the picture.

Now as some of you recall, Mac OS X Tiger was sold with the promise of over 200 new features. Most of them were merely enhancements to existing products, but this was the sort of bullet point game that Apple played, and play it well they did. For Leopard, they had to go farther, to justify its prolonged development time, so the promise was inflated to 300 and counting. Again, I’ll leave it to the reader to consider the significance of many of those features.

For Snow Leopard, Apple confessed that they would take a pause in the action to clean up the system, and focus on a handful of significant features that were designed to make 10.6 run faster, more efficiently, with greater stability and freedom from potential malware.

All well and good, and certainly the $29 upgrade price is a trivial matter, assuming it’s near as good as they claim. As far as those orphaned PowerPC users are concerned, well I suppose Apple will continue to support the standard version of Leopard for a while yet, particularly when it comes to security matters. That, too, is the conventional wisdom, but also the result of past experience.

Where that leaves the Tiger user, however, is another story entirely. If you want to stay put at 10.5, it’s still $129 for the upgrade package. If you have an Intel-based Mac and prefer to jump direct to 10.6, the cost is $169, but you also get iLife ’09 and iWork ’09 in the package. Since these two sell separately for $79 each, you are essentially paying $11 for Snow Leopard. If you have these two application suites already, well that’s how it goes. Apple is going into this assuming that most Snow Leopard adopters already have Leopard installed, and the rest will probably just consider buying new Macs at the appointed time. That’s what it’s really all about anyway.

What gets even more fascinating is the fact that Snow Leopard has a lot more going for it than you’d expect at first blush. Aside from the few items touted as new features, such as Microsoft Exchange support, there are actually some 100 “refinements” in Snow Leopard, according to Apple.

When you look at the list, you’ll find lots of stuff that would have previously ended up in the new feature column, such as a Finder rewritten in Cocoa and offering a lot better performance. This is where playing the name game can yield some fascinating possibilities, particularly when you consider that one person’s feature is another person’s refinement.

It is, in fact, really nice to find so much in the way of meat and potatoes from a system upgrade that was meant mostly as a clean-up. I wonder how Microsoft will react when it begins to market Windows 7 heavily, since it appears to be basically a Vista refinement with a few visual alterations in an apparent bid to justify a decent upgrade price.

Among the new capabilities, features, refinements or whatever in Snow Leopard is the return of a lost Classic Mac OS feature, known as Put Back. It’s function is simply to let you take an item in the Trash and send it back to its original folder. In Classic, it was known as Put Away, and since it is something that was not previously restored, it would seem to me that calling it a new feature is a better fit.

Just the other day, I was talking with someone who ranted about messiness of the Leopard Finder’s sidebar. You could remove, for example, all the items in a particular category, such as Places or Search, and the label itself would stick. Apple made the sensible decision to have the sidebar behave in a logical fashion for Snow Leopard. You uncheck or remove the contents of a category, and the label itself is history. Why didn’t they think of this before?

As you move through the bill of particulars, you will no doubt find lots of stuff that will really help reduce your list of Leopard complaints. Refinements they may be, but they are surely compelling enough to make you want to upgrade. How can you miss?

Now I realize that Snow Leopard is not in final release shape. Apple has given developers and computer book authors, under strict confidentiality agreements, access to copies of a near-final beta. Sure, some people are breaking those agreements and publicizing their experiences, and I suppose they can get away with it so long as they do not reveal anything that hasn’t already been made public.

However, with roughly three months left before Snow Leopard is released, I expect that any comments on its performance and reliability are premature. While Apple claims this is the final feature set, and it would make sense not to keep developers in the dark at this point, I suppose they could unleash a few last-minute surprises on us.

Having moved to all Intel Macs a couple of years ago, I am anxious to get ahold of the final version. Since my birth date is September 9th, which falls on a Wednesday this year, I could always hope for Apple to deliver my $29 birthday present by then. However, they usually push out releases of this sort on a Friday, but September 11th is the sort of anniversary we all want to forget. So I’ll accept September 18th as a suitable compromise. What say you Apple?