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  • The Snow Leopard Report: Still Correcting the Misinformation

    September 1st, 2009

    Unlike just about any recent Apple OS release, the amount of published misinformation about Snow Leopard is nothing short of staggering. Why should this be so?

    Well, I could look at the meta issue and bemoan the poor quality of our educational system, or the fact that the media is largely controlled by huge conglomerates that only care about profit margins. Journalism takes a back seat far too often.

    Or it may just be that Apple’s core message about what Snow Leopard is — and what it is not — has been misunderstood, or only partially understood.

    In recent days, for example, I read about some of the reasons why Snow Leopard takes up less storage space on your hard drive. Maybe it’s the fact that all the PowerPC code has been stripped from the system, and perhaps there are fewer printer drivers installed during the initial setup process. Sure, that’s part of the picture, but if these alleged tech pundits spent a few minutes doing some online research, they’d also realize that most of the system files are also compressed. So it’s a combination of reasons.

    Another major source of confusion is 64-bit computing. Since regular Macs boot with the 32-bit kernel, what happened to the promise of 64-bit? Well, if kernels were the sum total of the things that are run on your Mac, I suppose that would present a problem, but they’re not. The 32-bit default setting — easily changed by pressing the numbers six and four (64) during restart — is an important safety measure, taking into account that many third-party drivers, for printers, scanners, input devices and so on and so forth, are not yet 64-bit aware. Supposedly a simple recompile would deal with these shortcomings in most cases. Regardless, it doesn’t prevent applications from exacting the key benefits of 64-bit computing.

    Right now, the Xserve boots into 64-bit  mode by default. That will spread to the rest of the lineup eventually, but it’s not something that should present any source of concern.

    The other foolish claim is that Snow Leopard is a failure because Apple wasn’t able to add another 200 or 300 new features. Some Mac users are among the folks who have come to this erroneous conclusion, because they weren’t paying attention to what Apple has been saying all along. Back at the 2008 WWDC, when Snow Leopard was first announced, Apple said there’d be zero new features, and then said, well, there’d be one and that’s support for Microsoft Exchange.

    The purpose of Snow Leopard was largely to provide developers with several powerful tools that, in the end, would allow your Mac to run a whole lot faster. Those extra processing cores would be unleashed to share a larger portion of the workload, and some of it could also be offloaded to the graphics processor as well.

    However, you don’t see a visible difference when such tools are employed, except that longer rendering tasks take less time to complete. As more and more applications are recompiled to take advantage of the added tools, you’ll see greater and greater performance gains.

    Of course none of this should represent a secret. Apple has been very public about its plans from Day One.

    This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing new about Snow Leopard. There are over 100 “refinements,” meaning that things were changed to make them function better. In the past, some of them might have merited a new feature label, but not now. Again, all of this was explained in extremely deep detail on Apple’s site, particularly after the WWDC last June, and it was echoed ad infinitum on lots of tech sites since then.

    And, despite one unfortunate claim, the absence of Steve Jobs for his recent liver transplant didn’t suddenly cause Apple to scale back their plans for Snow Leopard.

    To drive home the point that it wasn’t intended to be a feature-laden release, they cut $100 off the retail purchase price. Can anything be less confusing?

    As with most new software releases, there are also some bugs, many of which may actually be due to the all-too-common conflicts with third-party software. In a few months, all this shall pass. No doubt Apple will have one or two 10.6.x releases out to take care of their part of the problem.

    No, such issues aren’t necessarily the result of poor development practices and improper or incomplete beta testing. In the real world, this is how commercial software is produced, and Apple does better than many companies.

    Another comparison is with Windows 7. Even though they quietly admit otherwise, Microsoft would prefer that you believe their next system release represents a major upgrade, and that’s not so. They have cleaned up the plumbing to be sure, and added some interface refinements. But, in exchange for exacting many times the purchase price of Snow Leopard, Windows 7 paves little new ground from a developer’s standpoint. None of the improvements match the scope of what Apple has devised for Snow Leopard, such as Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL.

    And Microsoft isn’t doing a thing to eradicate that miserable Registry, a relic of the past that has caused tons of grief for Windows users for many, many years. But what do you expect from a company that values sales skills above engineering expertise in its senior management?



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