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Service Pack or Major Upgrade?

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.