It is widely believed that Apple will unveil iPhone 4.0 at this summer’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference and ship it shortly thereafter. There’s also a passing level of speculation that they will also deliver preliminary information about the next great reference release for Mac OS X, 10.7, sporting an unknown feline moniker.
The real question, however, is whether there’s a crying need for a successor to Snow Leopard, and therein lies a tale.
Now most of you know that 10.6 arrived last August, several weeks ahead of Apple’s promised delivery timeframe, with the usual amount of fanfare. But much of the advantages of Snow Leopard lie in its potential, rather than any visible improvements. Consider Grand Central Dispatch, which provides built-in tools to allow applications to better support all those recent Macs that are equipped at least two processor cores. Consider the plight of owners of those super-expensive Mac Pros, with eight powerful processor cores and not much to do with them.
Another advantage, enhanced 64-bit support, lets apps access more than 4GB of memory, which will surely make a difference when you are engaged in heavy-duty content creation, particularly when it involves image editing and 3D rendering. And don’t forget OpenCL, which passes off key processing tasks to the often underutilized graphics chips on your Mac.
As you have probably noticed, precious few apps have been updated to support the first or the last, and even Apple was slow to make their products 64-bit savvy. What this means is that Snow Leopard’s promised performance improvements remain just that — a promise. Yes, 64-bit can help some, but keeping all your Mac’s processor cores active as much as possible will have a more immediate impact. Even converting a big audio file from one format to another can benefit greatly, but how many apps out there use more than one processor core?
Now to be fair to the developers in our audience, I realize that supporting Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL isn’t trivial. Apple provides enhanced tools to get the job done, but lots of work is still required. On the large, sprawling apps that benefit most, you can expect it will take months and months to ship upgrades.
Just the other day, I was reading some preliminary information about the forthcoming Adobe Creative Suite 5, which will include a 64-bit savvy Mac version of Photoshop. Yes, there was a 64-bit Windows version of CS4, but Adobe gave the excuse that the switchover to Intel hamstrung their developers, not giving them enough time to complete the job and deliver a Mac version without a substantial delay. That’s because Adobe took the easy way out in the early days of Mac OS X by porting their apps to Apple’s legacy Carbon environment.
Regardless of the pros and cons of the programming issues, it stands to reason that the expectations for Snow Leopard have yet to be fulfilled for most of you. Yes, maybe it’s a bit snappier and, for most, a little more stable. But the under-the-hood stuff isn’t doing what it was intended to do — yet!
That being the case, where’s the rush to 10.7? Regardless of what Apple offers for the next major operating system upgrade, there will be those inevitable compatibility issues, even if the fundamentals of Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL remain pretty much the same as they are now. Besides, how could Apple resist the temptation to tinker with a few odds and ends of the system plumbing to make it work better? No doubt there will also be interface changes and new features that developers will want to support.
So would it make sense for them to be forced to essentially suspend their Snow Leopard compatibility projects and spend the time and money moving to an even later operating system?
I’m sure little of this is lost on Apple. The other question is whether there’s any incentive to rush to upgrade Snow Leopard by the end of 2010 or even by the middle of 2011. Maybe there is, but I don’t see it, not when the existing operating system is working fine and Mac sales are still raging at a pretty good clip.
While Microsoft appears to be doing well with Windows 7, in terms of early adoption and potential business migrations, there’s little evidence that they have managed to stem the gradual erosion of their operating system’s market share. They haven’t slowed Mac sales, and making the swichover from XP to Windows 7 so difficult isn’t helping matters.
This isn’t to say that Apple will not stage a 10.7 technology demo at the WWDC. It’s possible they will, just to indicate what they’re working on, and provide a 15 to 18 month estimate for shipping a final version. That step would move the full feature rollout to WWDC 2011, which would seem a more sensible move.
It would also help developers if Apple assured them that they could continue to deliver Snow Leopard upgrades without having to confront major compatibility problems when 10.7 finally ships. But there’s no rush for them or us.
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