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The Snow Leopard Report: The Law of Diminishing Expectations

I suppose it would be nice to see your applications launch faster and your applications actually begin to use the two, four or eight cores of processor power that today’s Macs offer. That may be more than sufficient reason to buy an operating system that, for most practical purposes, otherwise offers few new features.

When I recently wrote an article about whether you even need a more powerful Mac these days, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the advantages. While you can’t retrieve your email any faster, nor will your Web pages come sooner, there are decided advantages to having more CPU horsepower.

Consider such basic functions as ripping a CD in iTunes. For this common task, it is absolutely true that a Mac with four cores can do up to twice as fast as the dual-core variety. What this means, of course, is that Apple has optimized iTunes to support multiple processors. It’s too bad that so many apps don’t, and that’s very true even for business software.

In the course of my work, for example, I regularly convert a pair of two-hour radio shows each week from QuickTime MP4 audio to MP3. That way most anyone can play the shows on pretty much any decent PC or music player on the planet. This is, of course, deliberate. High compatibility means more listeners, and, well, you get the picture.

None of the apps I use to make that conversion, however, seem to exercise more than one processor core on my Mac Pro, which has two quad-cores. Some run more efficiently, however. It takes Amadeus Pro, a shareware audio editor, a little over two minutes to perform the task, whereas Bias Peak Pro 6, a mainstay in the recording industry, requires as much as eight minutes. Go figure.

The arrival of Snow Leopard will mean vastly improved support for multiprocessors and it will even make it possible to offload tasks to your Mac’s graphics chip when it’s not otherwise occupied with gaming or other chores.

A you might expect, it won’t be an entirely automatic process. If an application calls on a system-related function, it will benefit from those potentially vast performance improvements. For other tasks, the developer will have to do the heavy lifting and compile an upgrade. I presume Apple will tell us that it will be a trivial process, one as trivial as (I suppose) making universal applications to run on the PowerPC and Intel.

Except that correctly optimizing and debugging an application can still take weeks or months to accomplish, so don’t expect a spate of multiprocessor-savvy software right at the starting gate. But remember that Mac OS X will be a faster beast, so there will be some improvement anyway.

Now I realize that thousands of Mac developers are already pounding away at Snow Leopard, and they could tell us many fascinating tales. On the other hand, Apple’s betas are protected by confidentiality agreements, and I would not be so bold as to ask anyone to break that contract. If you want to be an Apple developer and get the software seeds, you play by the rules and that’s the end of the discussion.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from reading the ubiquitous articles online that purport to reveal details about the status of Snow Leopard and, in some cases, screen shots.

At next week’s WWDC, Apple will present developers with the so-called “final beta,” and that could mean that there will be significant changes that will send them all scrambling to get their products compatible before Mac OS 10.6’s final release. Or maybe not. With Apple you can’t predict, and I won’t even try. Besides, we’ll all know the truth in just a few days.

The question mark about Snow Leopard is that, regardless of whether it stays at the standard $129 level or a lower “special price,” will a large number of Mac users be willing to get an upgrade that delivers few visible changes? Sure, the promise of much greater performance, even if benchmarked, may not be sufficient to sway most customers.

Also bear in mind that, according to the rumors mentioned above, Snow Leopard will only support Macs with Intel processors. I suppose that makes sense, if those stories are true, since it’ll come over three and a half years after the first Macs with “Intel Inside” appeared. While I suppose those of you with older Macs might feel disappointed, a lot of what Snow Leopard does requires multiprocessing and a decent graphics chip, and loads of Macs with the PowerPC simply don’t fit into that category. That’s how it is, folks.

At the same time, Snow Leopard will no doubt be preloaded onto new Macs within hours after its official release, so within a year or so the early adopter equation won’t be so significant.

One intriguing aspect of all this is how the inevitable Snow Leopard versus Windows 7 war will fare this fall. Remember, Windows 7 is largely a baked over version of Vista, offering better performance and some interface tweaks, such as a Dock-like taskbar cribbed from Apple. But you could also say that Snow Leopard is just a warmed over version of Leopard, right?