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  • Has Apple Run Out of Mac OS X Features?

    June 16th, 2010

    When first announcing Snow Leopard, Apple stated that they had decided to take a break from snazzy new features, and concentrate on the OS plumbing instead. So you had Grand Central Dispatch, to help with app multithreading, OpenCL, to offload processing chores to graphics chips, enhanced 64-bit support and lots more.

    The number of visible system “enhancements” totaled 100, but you couldn’t call them features, at least according to Apple’s marketing approach, even though some might have been regarded as such with previous releases of Mac OS X. Regardless, they were clearly taking a breather.

    The slow-down approach made a lot of sense. As of now, few applications support all or any of Snow Leopard’s key performance-related features. This despite the fact that, except for the first Intel-powered Mac mini, all Macs that can run 10.6 sport processors with two or more cores. The 27-inch iMac with the optional Intel i7 processor actually uses hyperthreading to simulate eight processor cores, but it makes no difference of the app only uses one.

    You’d think that developers of high-end apps would be jumping to incorporate 64-bit support, but not so. Adobe Photoshop and Premiere made that transition to 64-bit, but not much else in their lineup. Microsoft has confirmed that Office 2011 for the Mac will be 32-bit, even though being able to support extra memory would help with huge Excel spreadsheets and Word documents with complicated formatting and macros. But in claiming that one of the reasons for the decision was to maximize compatibility with the 32-bit version Office 2010 for Windows, you wonder whether the 64-bit version of Office on that platform is trouble-prone.

    Just this week, it was announced that Apple and their graphics chips partners, ATI and NVIDIA, are only now working to improve gaming performance, and no wonder. Preliminary reports indicate that the newly-released Steam for Mac delivers games with half the frame rates as their Windows counterparts. That doesn’t mean those games aren’t playable, but it doesn’t look good to see comparable Windows hardware, or Macs using Boot Camp, fare much better with the more sophisticated, resource-hungry settings.

    This state of affairs explains why saddling Mac developers with a new operating system and additional compatibility issues wouldn’t be politically correct. Even if Apple wanted to spend R&D money to rush 10.7 into production, it would be a bad idea. Give the third parties time to catch up first.

    But know this: I do not for a moment believe that Apple has lost their Mac mojo, and that they’re unable to craft any more compelling Mac OS X upgrades. I’m sure they have already architected the basics of Snow Leopard’s successor, and preliminary versions are making the rounds at the Apple campus. Indeed, Web stat firms that catalog online activity have already reported the presence of 10.7 users in growing quantities.

    So if there is going to be a 10.7, I’ve already suggested that you won’t see it until late in 2011, with a major launch at the 2011 WWDC. It’s even possible that the WWDC will be split into separate events, one for traditional Mac developers, and another for those who focus on the iOS. But that hasn’t been confirmed, although such an approach would avoid confusion and help attract a larger number of participants. Indeed, this year’s event was sold out within days, with the larger proportion of workshops devoted to the mobile platform.

    When it comes to the actual features, the time is ripe for suggestions, since it’s real premature for Apple to nail down a final feature set. Some high-end users are talking of a new, more resilient file system to replace the aging HFS+. As a practical matter, though, you have to wonder how the transition might occur. Would you have to reformat your drive, wait till you buy a new Mac with upgraded hard drives, or just run some sort of background file conversion utility?

    I’m thinking the latter, because that’s Apple’s way. Since it’s possible to partition your Mac’s hard drive “live” to install Boot Camp, I can see a simple solution, although there would have to be a lot of redundancy and error checking in the upgrade utility in case something goes wrong during the conversion process.

    When it comes to the whizzy features, there are no doubt loads of things that can be done with the Finder and other Mac OS core apps. You can even return to the Classic Mac OS for influence, and just restore some of the missing capabilities, such as the highly customizable Apple menu.

    There isn’t even a system-based Print Window feature, where you can output a copy of a Finder window. Why should you have to depend on third-party utilities for this and other lost features?

    Perhaps Apple might reconsider an irritating OS change, where it no longer recognizes age-old Mac OS type/creator information. Suddenly documents formatted in industry-standard formats, such as audio and movie files, open in iTunes or another Apple app rather than the one you’ve always used. Yes, the Finder’s Get Info command lets you change that, so such documents open with the app you prefer, but why should you have to go through the bother?

    In any case, I do think it’s important for us to continue to pursue a 10.7 wish list. It’s early enough in the game to actually influence Apple to add or change a feature for once.



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    7 Responses to “Has Apple Run Out of Mac OS X Features?”

    1. DaveD says:

      It looked like Intel messed up Apple’s plan for OpenCL by locking out a better integrated graphics processor from Nvidia. I would assume that Apple is looking at what AMD has to offer. Maybe a hungry chip maker would be willing to provide what Apple would like to have in future Macs (like AMD, Nvidia, ATI with full OpenCL support).

      It is good that Apple is taking the time to further improve Mac OS X. Especially if their primary goal is going from “ease of use” into “easier to use.” I like that.

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    3. dfs says:

      “I’m thinking the latter, because that’s Apple’s way. Since it’s possible to partition your Mac’s hard drive “live” to install Boot Camp, I can see a simple solution, although there would have to be a lot of redundancy and error checking in the upgrade utility in case something goes wrong during the conversion process.“ Assuming this was possible, it might take many hours or even days to accomplish it. I wonder how many Mac users would be willing to sacrifice the downtime.

      “ As of now, few applications support all or any of Snow Leopard’s key performance-related features.“ Including few Apple applications. Apple needs to start putting out such software, not just the high-end stuff but common applications like the iWork suite, to demonstrate the advantages, which would arouse customer interest and start putting pressure on Adobe, Microsoft, etc. And Apple doesn’t do this, they’re going to ask, probably already are asking, “if Apple itself doesn’t make the investment in this kind of upgrade, why should we?“

    4. Bob Bennetta says:

      It is my hope that Apple uses the next rev of Mac OS X as a means to differentiate it from the iOS instead of copying interfaces and elements from the mobile OS and UI. Better use of the Services architecture debuted in Snow Leopard would be a start. Make the focus of Mac OS compliment rather than mimic the iPad/iPhone.

      • Louis Wheeler says:

        @Bob Bennetta,

        There seems to a disagreement on the web as to what direction Apple is going. Will Apple move toward iOS or Mac OSX?

        My belief is that, as the hardware improves on the iPhone platform (to ARM Cortex A9 dual core processors, for instance), more of Mac OSX will be included. CocoaTouch is necessary only if you have a touch screen. I think it unlikely that Apple will be selling larger iPads, because the form factors quickly become uncomfortable to use. A 10 inch screen in your lap is fine, but a 24 inch one is improbable.

        I expect that Apple will complete the transition to NeXTstep (Rhapsody) begun in 1998. The Carbon API’s will be quickly sidelined so that 64 bit Cocoa can strut its stuff. There is much in NeXTstep which had to be placed on the shelf, just for Apple to survive. Apple often revisits and updates premature designs. Just look at the resemblance of the Apple Cube to the Mac Mini or the 20th Century Macintosh to the 24 inch iMac.

        Of course, the Mac Mini is getting so powerful now, that I am likely to get one, along with an inexpensive Dell 27 in screen. An iPad could replace my mobile needs easily. I don’t see myself purchasing an iMac again.

    5. Louis Wheeler says:

      Since 10.6 is only 10 months old, It’s a trifle early to be concerned about 10.7. Despite Steve Jobs stated desire for a 12 to 18 month release cycle, 24 months is customary. This would place 10.7’s release in the latter part of summer 2011

      Features aren’t a problem, because the developers haven’t adjust to 10.6 yet. Apple has, no doubt, about four years worth of features piled up waiting to unleashed. Partly, this may be because the fundamentals of the 64 bit kernel, GCD and OpenCL need to be commonplace, first.

      Is Microsoft pushing Apple to release features quickly? No, I don’t think so. Win7 didn’t have anything ground breaking in it. I have seen no figures to prove it, but it seems as though Win7’s adoption has been faster than Vista’s, but slower than expected.

      As to the desired features, I don’t see much push. Apple dropped Sun’s Zettabyte file system from consideration, last year. ZFS’s major advantage is in fully utilizing multiple disk drives. While this condition is necessary on mainframe computers, it is not yet common on most Macintoshes, yet. We don’t know what Apple’s plans are, but there is a newer file system which Apple may be considering: the B-Tree file system. BTFS is similar, but it has a few advantages over Sun’s ZFS. One of these is politics, because Sun was purchased by Oracle, last year. BTFS has better open source credentials, but it won’t be ready for prime time for about a year.

      One consideration is that Apple needs to move quickly out of the Carbon API’s and into Cocoa. This will be necessary for a fully 64 bit system. This also means that essential system applications, like the Finder, need to be reworked. The Finder is clearly in transition from Carbon. Apple needs to complete the move to a fully NeXT based system, so that issues like the Type/creator controversy need to be resolved. But, since this problem occurs only on old files, time alone will take care of this confusion.

    6. Lawrence Rhodes says:

      For changing file systems in-place, this is only somewhat more work than a DiskWarrior catalog rebuild, and should take only ten or so minutes. No actual file data needs to be moved or copied. The trick is making the conversion absolutely 100.000% safe even in the event of a power failure. Quite a challenge when you’re changing basic disk structures.

      I too favor the return of creator-determined launch capability. I have many ten-year-old files which have not lost their relevance, and it will be a pain to assign applications to them manually when they always worked before. Maybe Apple will bring it back, or at least improve the current implementation so that the creator field indexes an extended attribute containing an application string like com.barebones.textwrangler rather than the stupid inferior pathname stored in the (likely previously empty) resource fork.

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