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The Snow Leopard Report: Is it Ready Yet for Prime Time?

Now we all know that Snow Leopard appeared last August, but for some of you it still has serious problems, so you’re sticking with Leopard. Some of you are even Tiger holdouts, because Leopard didn’t light your fire.

The other day, I saw a perfectly serious article claiming adoption of 10.6 was not so good and then trying to explain why. But when the article’s statistics demonstrated a roughly 45% adoption rate, despite the fact that millions of Mac users can’t install Snow Leopard, the basic premise was invalidated.

Aside from those of you who have PowerPC-based Macs, and thus can never install Snow Leopard, it is quite true that 10.6 is perceived as fatally flawed in some respects. Some complain of more system crashes, others fret that their applications aren’t compatible yet.

Unfortunately, such issues apply to all personal computer operating system upgrades, from Apple and Microsoft. Early adopters suffer the pain and agony of bugs that weren’t eradicated before shipping. Some of the apps and peripheral drivers you require for your work are suddenly rendered inoperable. So you’re stuck, unless, of course, you stick with what you have.

At the end of the day, nobody forces you to install a new OS. If the one you have gets the job done, there’s no harm in staying with it. The same is true, of course, for the latest and greatest versions of the productivity apps you use. It’s clear to me that such publishers as Adobe and Microsoft are finding it more and more difficult to add useful features and not make their products buggier and more and more bloated.

Does it make sense, for example, that Word 2008 takes longer to launch on the most powerful Intel-based Mac than version 5.1 did on a mainstream Mac built 20 years ago?

All right, it’s fair to say that today’s version of Word is being asked to perform a whole lot more functions than that legendary version from the old days. But has Microsoft done anything to make their products work more efficiently, the better to take advantage of faster hardware? Or do they use the speedier processors as an excuse for lazy programming? I think the answer is painfully obvious in most cases.

Now returning to the operating system equation, it’s fair to say that it usually takes a few updates for things to settle down. Even though Mac OS X ushered in an era of enhanced stability, almost every version shipped with a show-stopper or two. A few had the potential of causing lost data. Consider the Leopard bug where a file moved, rather than copied, to another drive or network share, might become corrupted. Or the infamous Snow Leopard problem where switching from your Guest Account to your regular one would result in the latter being deleted by mistake.

I like to think Snow Leopard is working quite nicely at the present time. It is on every Mac on which I’ve installed it. I didn’t suffer from the initial bugs, and I think that the 10.6.2 update fixed the worst ills. There are rumors that a 10.6.3 is in our near future, and I wouldn’t doubt that there’s probably a 10.6.4 under construction as well. Something as complicated as a computer OS is always a work in progress and you can complain all you want that Apple rushes these things out too quickly. That conclusion is probably true to some extent, but even if Snow Leopard came out a few weeks later, it doesn’t guarantee all the significant issues would have been eradicated.

The real question is whether the upgrade makes sense for you. Visible new features in Snow Leopard are few. If you crave enhanced support for Microsoft Exchange email servers, and can’t tolerate Entourage as an email client, the enhanced support in Address Book, iCal and Mail ought to help serve most of you. The few missing Exchange features may be addressed in Outlook 2011 for the Mac, due towards the end of the year. But if Microsoft doesn’t fix the known instabilities in Entourage, it may not be worth the bother.

The under-the-hood fixes in Snow Leopard were supposed to deliver added performance and enhanced stability. The Cocoa Finder is surely not as prone to forget positioning or hang when you access folders with loads of files or experience a disconnect from a network share. But it’s not quite all it could be.

Worse, few developers have taken advantage of the highly touted features, such as Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL, which are designed to allow apps to take better advantage of multicore processors and speedier graphic cards. For the time being, Snow Leopard may seem a tad snappier than Leopard on the same hardware, but the real improvements remain unrealized. I don’t know when that’ll change. Maybe Steve Jobs will exhort developers to get with the program at the next WWDC, but the programming issues remain complicated. It won’t happen overnight.

Yes, I look forward to seeing what Apple can conjure up for 10.7, the operating system where you hope they’ll return to feature improvements. But Snow Leopard is here and now, and I hope Apple won’t stop trying to make it work better, assuming third-party developers demonstrate real progress towards making their products take advantage of the most compelling new features.