Service Pack or Major Upgrade?

September 22nd, 2009

The chatter continues over just how one should classify Snow Leopard and Windows 7. The most common descriptive phrases are “service pack” or “major upgrade,” but there are actually finer distinctions that I’ll get to shortly.

Now Windows advocates like to refer to Snow Leopard as a service pack, in a sense echoing what Apple said about having very few new features. I suppose compared to the way Microsoft generally handles a service pack, they may have a point. But if they do, how does that account for the recent 10.6.1 update? If that free download was a service pack, how do you classify the original 10.6 upgrade?

The conventional wisdom has it that a major upgrade is the one that is loaded with new features, regardless of whether there are significant changes to the OS plumbing. So when Leopard was promoted with over 300 new features — even though some of those features were more in the form of “refinements” — few doubted that it was a major upgrade. It commanded the standard $129 upgrade fee, and only the ignorant would complain that the price was too high. At least, compared to what Microsoft does with its higher-end versions of Windows, it was a downright bargain.

In any case, the Windows world denigrated Apple for not piling on the features with Snow Leopard — at least the ones that you can see, although there are over 100 interface-related changes that are listed under the term refinements. In the end, though, what is more important? Do those added features actually make you more productive, or do they saddle you with more eye candy and performance-robbing special effects that have nothing to do with the apps you use and the work you generate?

Apple has clearly decided to take the latter approach, and thus the biggest improvements in Snow Leopard are the ones that will allow developers to deliver applications that are more productive. It may not do much for a word processor or browser, but as soon as you wait even a few seconds for a function to complete, such as applying a Photoshop filter, you can see the huge potential of Grand Central Dispatch, which simplifies the process of harnessing the power of multicore processors. Although it’s not exactly a cake walk, GCD will surely reduce time to market. Apple has even made the source code for this new tool open source, although app compilers will ultimately have to become compatible too. But that means that Unix developers who have ported their products to Mac OS X will also be able to take advantage of these improvements on other platforms.

Although there are supposedly tools in Windows to allow for better use of multicore processors, they are not nearly as efficient. Worse, the 32-bit versus 64-bit issue is still a complicating factor. Apple has dealt with that, too, by delivering one size that fits all.

Now when you add the improved 64-bit support in Snow Leopard, and factor in OpenCL and other new features, you can see that Apple put in an awful lot of time and effort to make 10.6 a more productive working environment. It may take time for large numbers of apps to become compatible, but as they do, the Mac’s productivity advantage over Windows will grow.

So in terms of what Snow Leopard can do for you, maybe it is a major upgrade after all.

As far as Windows 7 is concerned, some suggest it’s just a service pack for Vista with a few interface changes and a new name to make you forget the stench of Vista. This is very much part and parcel of Microsoft’s approach, which is to make a few refinements and change a product’s name when it’s not successful.

Consider such branding exercises as MSN Search, or Windows Live Search or Bing. These are all variations on a basic theme, and while Bing seems to be quite a decent search engine, the name change was done to make you forget that a previous, unsuccessful version existed. Talk about changing history.

Does that mean that, if Vista was successful, what is now Windows 7 would have actually been nothing more than  glorified service pack? That’s a good question. I suppose there was a tremendous amount of bloat to trim out of Vista, and that level of change doesn’t come cheap. However, Windows users expect their service packs to be free, and Microsoft wanted to recoup its investment. So they decided to package the product as a major upgrade, and they added some interface changes (I hesitate to call them refinements, since that’s debatable) and gave it a new name to justify the price of admission.

While it’s still cheaper than its predecessor, and there are a few fire sales here and there (such as the current academic offer), buying the top-of-the-line version of Windows 7 is still far more expensive than any Mac OS X upgrade, major or otherwise. It so happens that Microsoft is a far less efficient company. Where Apple may spend hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver an operating system upgrade, the cost to Microsoft is apt to be in the billions of dollars.

In the end, I would call both Snow Leopard and Windows 7 upgrades that deserve retail packaging. They can’t be free updates by any normal definition of the term. But I’ll let you decide whether the term major or minor applies.

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8 Responses to “Service Pack or Major Upgrade?”

  1. DaveD says:

    The way I see it is…

    The primary objective of Microsoft’s Windows Vista was to catch up to and leap beyond Apple’s Mac OS X.

    Microsoft’s Vista project became a mess. Work began on May 2001 and ended on November 2006. Vista was still not ready. The smart Window users did not upgrade from XP and smarter Windows PC buyers downgraded from Vista to XP. Those in the know like Intel did not upgrade at all.

    It has taken three updates, Vista service pack 1, Vista service pack 2, and Windows 7 (aka Vista service pack 3) to fix Vista.

    When Apple releases a major OS upgrade, I expect the OS to be as good or better than the prior one. Has Microsoft finally updated Vista to be as good as XP? If so, then it has taken over eight years to get it right. I would say that putting out a service pack as Win7 is Microsoft’s way to recoup lost Vista sales.

  2. PatS says:

    I think the distinction of service pack vs Major upgrade should be based on what the developer will feel. Many major upgrades cause users problems with existing programs and so the decision to upgrade should not be rushed into until you can determine if your existing workflow will require major modification under the new OS. Apple/Microsoft is signaling to their developers/users that they have implemented major changes. Service packs or point releases tell users that installing them should not break existing functionality and normally should be upgrade to ASAP.

  3. Louis Wheeler says:

    I think the comparisons are inappropriate; too often, they descend into being nothing more than FUD.

    I recently had a Windows fan loftily ask me why Apple has no “Bug Fix Tuesday.” I answered that the Mac never has enough bugs or vulnerabilities to fix them on a weekly basis. That statement offended him.

    Each company has the right to define what “major” means for their upgrades. If Microsoft chooses to have six years go by between Windows XP and Vista, so what? What if it takes three years between Vista and System Seven? If the minor service packs are very few in numbers and take years to show up, who cares? That is the Windows user’s business, not ours. There is no need for either side to be uncivil.

    Apple tends to, more frequently, have major upgrades, tenth point releases, than Microsoft. It has many minor bug fixes, hundredth point releases, in between the major upgrades. It also has security updates, but the minor upgrades are never so frequent as to be on a weekly basis.

    Never mind the cost differences for upgrades between Apple and Microsoft. Each side thinks that the others pricing schedule is screwy. More frequent upgrades means more cost to the consumer, but you also get improvements which you must pay for. I’ve heard many Wintel fans complain about this fact, but never Apple users. Apple doesn’t force anyone to upgrade.

    Snow Leopard 10.6 is special in that it is mostly a developer release, although the consumer got disk drive space back and speed improvements out of it. What the developers got was a much cleaner, smaller and more polished operating system. Obsolete hardware and code were banished; the Carbon API’s were relegated to 32 bit apps. They will be left behind as the majority of Mac apps move to 64 bit code in the next year.

    Was Snow Leopard a major upgrade to the developers? You bet; often enough it broke their code if they weren’t quick enough. Bug fixes don’t tend to do that.

    Then why is almost everyone rushing to install Snow Leopard on their Intel Macs? Reports say that Snow Leopard is being installed at twice the rate of Leopard and four times the rate of Tiger. A low upgrade cost doesn’t hurt it being adopted. But, the numbers may be confusing; bigger numbers may not necessarily indicate a higher percentage rate. Apple’s market share is more than twice as big as it was when Leopard was released two years ago. And is more than four times bigger than for Tiger’s release.

    Should it matter? In the 19 months after the Leopard OS was released over 92% of Mac users upgraded. I’m expecting a faster upgrade than that, this time, because of the real speed improvements which will coming as the majority of Mac Applications upgrade to 64 bit code. Applications using Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL will mostly be in 64 bit. There will be a great pull from this on the consumer, so Apple doesn’t have to push.

    Snow Leopard’s improvements were fundamental. They allow the developers new technologies which they can use to fight each other for market share. Some prominent developers will find themselves out classed and lose their market share rankings.

    The results of whether this was a major upgrade don’t directly come from Apple. The success of a computer platform is always in how many applications are on it vying for attention. The applications are what attracts the consumers. Snow Leopard will be major in its effects, but we won’t know the extent of that change for some months.

    • Bill B says:

      @Louis Wheeler,

      I’d suggest that one reason people are adopting SL so fast is because it costs $29 at most. Also, they learned from us ‘1st day adopters’ that not much got broken (and this with the gigantic influx of paranoid ex-Windows users) and everything else (essentially everything) is faster.

      I work in the 64-bit kernel and not one app, from Eudora to CS3 apps to ffmpeg to Audicity got broken. The ONLY thing I really, really miss is WindowShade – a haxie.

      The ONLY problem I had to work out was how to get my 3 Appletalk printers to work on a network. That took a bit of research (about an hour on dialup)

      Stuff just works without having to search for drivers or go thru other machinations. No lost time is also increased productivity.

  4. DBZ says:

    I’d say Snow Leopard and Windows 7 are both comparable in that they are both major refinements of seriously buggy operating systems. And they both break new ground in 64-bit computing and in other developments that harness the power of newer hardware. And they both cast aside a further raft of legacy hardware, especially Snow Leopard.

    It’s what has gone before that was different. Microsoft’s quality control fell apart earlier and more seriously than Apple’s, with the rot starting in at the start of Windows Vista development in ’01 as opposed to Apple’s troubles starting in about 03-04 after Avie Tevanian left the company. And with Vista, Microsoft promised more but delivered less than Apple in terms of compatibility with legacy hardware and software. The result was an OS that, while perfectly good on its own on a new computer, borked pre-existing computer systems.

    So Microsoft have some catching up to do, which could be particularly difficult for the many remaining Windows XP customers if upgrading is as difficult as it has been in the past for Windows customers who skip an operating system release. However, with the big price promos, I have Snow Leopard installed and for the first time ever I am buying Windows (7 of course). Looking forward to having both on the same system.

  5. Louis Wheeler says:

    Sorry, DBZ, I can’t agree. Leopard wasn’t buggy. It merely had legacy code in it from 1998 which Apple disposed of. The Carbon API’s aren’t bad, but Cocoa runs faster and better on the same hardware when it is properly optimized.

    What I remember was that Leopard had a rocky beginning but it firmed up around 10.5.4. Sure, the Mac OS has had some bugs, but no exploits like with Windows. It had some Trojan Horses, but those are human engineering. The User has to give away his passwords. What other bugs are you thinking of? Surely, not spam or Phishing attacks? Besides, Snow Leopard warns the user of those now.

    Windows has had had a 64 bit version of WindowsXP since 2002 which no one paid much attention to. Apple has been moving toward 64 bit apps since 2003 and this year it will attain it fully. I’m expecting 90+% of Mac Apps will be running in 64 bit code within a year. That will be a very fast migration and an easy one, too, since Apple has been patiently working to make it so. The move to Intel hardware, three years ago, forced the developers to accept the XCode 2.0 IDE. All they need do is recompile for a FAT app which contain both 32 and 64 bit versions.

    I have no idea when Microsoft will migrate, since it has a very difficult road ahead of it. Some of its shortsighted decisions twelve years ago have caught up with it.

    System Seven seems better than Vista, but no one knows how well it will be accepted by the Windows user base. 60% of companies polled say they will wait a year and see.

    I have no heartburn about System Seven; enjoy your use of it on BootCamp. Get some anti virus programs though. The Windows OS has some major security deficiencies. If you are using both systems, then you have a good test case on which OS is buggy.

  6. Tom B says:

    It’s funny; with Apple doing much better in recent years, the stray Windows “fanbois” have all come out of the woodwork and become much more vocal. It must feel bad being in 2009 with a creaky old non-UNIX OS like Win7, with nothing much to show but new eye candy and somewhat better performance than Vista.

  7. Louis Wheeler says:

    No, Tom B, The Windows fanboys were worse years ago. It was always about checklists, Megahertz and catch phrases. Cooperative multi tasking and non protected memory was fine with well behaved applications in Mac OS 8 or 9.

    What floored me was how ignorant they were. If Windows NT had preemptive scheduling and protected memory, they thought that had it in Windows 98. They were impossible to talk to, because they didn’t know anything.

    Now, you try to tell them that Apple has UNIX03 certification on Intel hardware and they don’t know what you are talking about. They don’t know what benefits we derive from that.

    I don’t care to argue with Windows fans. They only know what they have been told and they cant verify the truth of anything.

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