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Has Apple Run Out of Mac OS X Features?

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.