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The Snow Leopard Report: Ready for Greatness or Boredom?

I find it interesting that so few of you are complaining because Snow Leopard pretty much signals the end of the PowerPC. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, because that venerable processor family seldom realized its full potential, particularly in the latter days.

Take the G4. Do you recall when Steve Jobs boasted that you’d have a “supercomputer on your desktop”? The original version was supposed to sport 400MHz, but got downgraded to 350MHz because of production issues with the faster chips. The G5 was supposed to hit the magic 3GHz barrier a year after its release, but that day came and went with only modest speed boosts. The hoped for PowerBook G5 was a dream, unless you craved something that would double as a broiler.

But even in 1994, when the PowerPC was first launched, it took a while to realize its promised speed improvements. For one thing, most of the Mac OS was still coded for 68K Macs, and thus had to operate in emulation. The same held true for many of your favorite apps, so for a year or two it all seemed like a step backwards.

The transition to Intel took a whole lot faster with fewer teething pains. Apple made it easier for developers to code their products as Universal, which would allow them to operate in both PowerPC and Intel format. Of course, not everything was super smooth. The upgraded apps still had to be optimized for both processor families, and it did seem as if the Intel version got better treatment. An example would be Office 2008, which is widely regarded as performing less efficiently on the PowerPC than its predecessor. Let’s not forget some of Adobe’s Creative Suite software that was designed to be Intel only.

You could see the handwriting on the wall.

Now, some three and a half years after the first Intel-based Mac appeared, Apple is on the verge of releasing the first version of Mac OS X designed solely for that platform. However, PowerPC users of Leopard shouldn’t feel completely abandoned, as it does appear Apple will release necessary updates for a while yet, particularly security fixes. But the prospects for more updates to Tiger are slim to none.

Sporting over 100 “refinements,” Snow Leopard does appear to be a sensible upgrade, particularly when you factor in the $29 upgrade fee. Apple isn’t adding new capabilities strictly to play the numbers game as they seem to have done with previous system upgrades. Most of the changes seem to make sense, even the Put Back command that lets you return an item from the Trash to its former location without playing the guessing game. Or putting your brain cells to the task when you have better uses for them.

I expect the business community will appreciate the enhanced native support for Microsoft Exchange software, but I wonder whether this means that Microsoft will now have less incentive to upgrade Entourage, since Apple is providing much of its functionality. Besides, Entourage, despite its excellent handling of IMAP email, can be a temperamental beast in some respects, as most of you no doubt realize.

In any case, having fewer visible changes might make for a more stable initial 10.6 release. As many of you recall, Apple is notorious for having to rush out maintenance updates to recent versions of Mac OS X to serious address bugs that appeared early on. While there’s no guarantee of anything, I do wonder if that’s the result of marketing making too much of a push to get the thing out as quickly as possible, figuring the rest of the stuff would be fixed later on.

Since Snow Leopard is supposed to be the ultimate clean up release, though, that puts the onus on Apple’s development team to clear out the sludge and deliver a more reliable release this time. Since we don’t have the actual date when it’ll show up on the retail shelves, other than an amorphous September timeframe, you’d think there’s sufficient wiggle room to delay the release a few weeks should problems arise.

Certainly I could selfishly hope Snow Leopard will have its coming out party on Wednesday, September 9th, my birthday, but I sort of suspect it’ll arrive later in the month. Prior to the WWDC, I was thinking in terms of the last Friday of August. My new projected release date is Friday, September 25th.

That choice would give Apple its usual weekend window for initial sales, and also plenty of time to meet its promised release date and yet allow what you hope would be sufficient time to address critical defects before millions of Mac users install 10.6.

The other consideration is where Apple should go from here. I have not seen much in the way of 10.7 wish lists yet. I would presume, based on Apple’s current release schedule, that it probably won’t debut until the first part of 2011 at the earliest. That’s plenty of time to hope for that marble theme, if anyone cares, or some really substantial improvements.