Mac OS X Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7

What the next-generation of operating systems aim to offer both Mac and PC users

Microsoft Tuesday revealed Windows 7 at its annual Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles. Windows 7 is designed to replace Windows Vista as the main operating system for Windows-based PC users.

With Apple's OS X Snow Leopard also under development, we met up with Ian Moulster, Windows Live commercial lead for Microsoft, to talk through some of Microsoft's key ideas and discover what the next generation of operating systems aim to offer both Mac and PC users.

[ Check out InfoWorld's preview of Mac OS X Snow Leopard. | Is Windows 7 any good? Tom Yager says Windows 7 atones for Vista's sins, but Randall C. Kennedy says Windows 7 is more of the same old mess. ]

At this year's WWDC, Apple announced that the next version of its operating system would take a break from introducing new features and focus on performance. "We have delivered more than a thousand new features to OS X in just seven years and Snow Leopard lays the foundation for thousands more," said Bertrand Serlet, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering. "In our continued effort to deliver the best user experience, we hit the pause button on new features to focus on perfecting the world's most advanced operating system."

The OS X update, expected to ship in June 2009, will be optimized for multicore processors and enable "breakthrough amounts of RAM -- up to a theoretical 16TB." Apple also promised a new, modern media platform with QuickTime X. The update will also offer out-of-the-box support for Microsoft Exchange 2007.

On the other side of the fence, Microsoft has had highly publicized troubles with its Vista operating system. So our first question to Microsoft was whether Windows 7 was a smokescreen for fixing some of the problems with Vista. "No," came the answer, "Service Packs 1 and 2 are fixing things," said Microsoft's Ian Moulster. "This is less about fixing things and more about building on the good stuff. This is about where we go from here."

Having got that out of they way, we got stuck into discussing the future of the operating system. It's clear that Snow Leopard is about much more than just a speed bump, and Microsoft has more than just a few "borrowed" ideas being used to fix Vista's flaws.

So let's get started with the biggest news: Sometime next year the desktop and laptop computer is highly likely to sport multitouch, touchscreen technology.

Touchscreen technology confirmed
One major new feature confirmed for Windows 7 is a vastly improved touchscreen support. Taking its cue from the iPhone and the technology from Microsoft Surface, Windows 7 will see the same kind of multitouch gestures applied to the desktop or laptop computer.

"You'll be able to drag around windows and resize photos by pulling them apart... that sort of thing," said Ian Moulster. "We've redesigned the interface to make touchscreen a lot easier, and it'll be good to see what the take up will be. We already have several ways to interact with the computer: keyboard, mouse, voice, and we see this as another way that users can interact with their computer. It's more about choice than anything, just giving users another way that they can interact."

One interest point of note is that while Google steered clear of multitouch input for its Android G1 phone (lest Apple's legal team descend upon the company with a fury), Microsoft appears to have no such qualms. We imagine that because the Surface was a multitouch product Microsoft feels a legitimate claim to the technology. However, like Google, Microsoft is also going to enable any company to develop its own gestures for the Windows 7 operating system [Insert your own joke here -- Ed].

In this sense, the ball for touchscreen technology is now very much back in Apple's court. Of course, Apple has the iPhone and has rolled out multitouch technology to the trackpads of its laptops, so in that sense Apple is the leading authority on touch-based input. However, it's made no mention at all of rolling out touchscreen technology beyond its iPhone and iPod Touch products. At the launch of the iPhone in the United Kingdom, Macworld asked Steve Jobs about the prospect of multitouch making its way to the Mac and he replied: "multitouch makes a lot of sense on the iPhone, but not so much sense on an iMac. Consider it a research project."

Are we likely to see the fruits of that research at the next Macworld Expo in January 2009? We think a touchscreen Mac just became a lot more likely.

Confirmed and rumored features in Snow Leopard
Even though Apple said that the Snow Leopard was about performance, not new features, some have been announced on Apple's Web site. The first is support for Microsoft Exchange 2007 built into Mail, Address Book, and iCal. OS X Snow Leopard will use the Exchange Web Services protocol to provide access to Exchange 2007 on your Mac. While this is of little interest to the majority of consumers, it will enable Apple to make further inroads into the corporate market with both the Mac and iPhone.

There are some features in OS X Server that we believe may make their way into future iterations of OS X. One is an application called Podcast Producer that enable users to quickly record video and audio podcasts and perform basic editing. The other is an application called Wiki Server that enables multiple users to publish and share collaborative information. Wiki Server is a strikingly interesting application that enables small groups to create and share information and files. Whether this technology is wholly dependent on the presence of an OS X-based Server, or could be rolled into Snow Leopard is debatable though.

On the whole, we have been given very little information regarding new features in Snow Leopard, mostly because the new features are performance-based (such as Apple's Grand Central technology that will enable performance gains in multi-core technologies). We have also been given no reason to believe that any other new features are in the pipeline -- quite the opposite in fact.

Whether Apple will reveal new features at the Macworld Expo 2009 remains to be seen.

Confirmed new features in Windows 7
Microsoft took the time to explain some new features of Windows 7 to us. There have been a couple of user interface enhancements. You can now resize Windows by dragging them to edges of the screen. Top to maximize, bottom to minimize, and dragging to the left or right automatically resizes to half the display. If you're comparing documents side by side, you can just move the documents to the left- and right-hand sides to automatically fit both on the screen. The combination of this with touchscreen support will be interesting to see.

Other UI features will be familiar to OS X users. The Taskbar now sports a feature similar to Stacks, if you have multiple files in a program open they are gathered into a thumbnail preview that "stack" up when you hover over the icon in the Taskbar. QuickLaunch App icons have been removed and you can now pin applications into the Taskbar (similar to the "Keep In Dock" command in OS X).

"They're all just little things that make it easier to use," said Ian Moulster.

Another new feature set is something called Home Group that makes it easier for multiple users on a network to search each other's hard drive. As we haven't seen this feature in action we had difficulty visualizing it, it in effect sounds very similar to current functionality found in both OS X and Vista.

Of more interest is an extension to Windows' BitLocker (the Windows equivalent of FileVault) that enables users to encrypt USB drives and flash sticks, as well as the hard drives on their computers. Microsoft hopes this will enable users to avoid some of the embarrassing gaffes of losing confidential information that hit the headlines this year. The new BitLocker functionality will be backwards compatible to Windows XP, which will be able to open the encrypted drives, although Windows 7 is required to do the initial encryption.

Another new feature is an improved Device Manager with open support for third-party devices. The idea is that when you plug in a third-party device, the Device Manager will have a visual representation of the device and access to functions such as synching and copying of data. Companies will provide Microsoft with their own updates for the Device Manager, which will be seeded out in Windows updates.

Finally, Windows 7 has a vastly improved search function that has been enhanced to include corporate networks. "you can -- in a very granular way -- incorporate what your search will include," said Ian Moulster.

In all though, aside from the touchscreen technology we found the proposed feature set for Windows 7 somewhat lightweight. "This is a taster rather than a full set," said Ian Moulster. "We're not ready to bestow everything."

System requirements and release dates
As mentioned earlier, Snow Leopard is largely designed to take advantage of multicore Intel processors, and to that end we expect it to require a Mac with an Intel processor (so that leaves all G5 and earlier computers on the regular version of Leopard). Based upon leaked system requirements, we expect Snow Leopard to work on all Intel-based Macs.

Ian Moulster explained to us that Windows 7 would largely have the same system requirements as Windows Vista. Neither operating system is designed for the next generation of computers, but rather to make the most out of the current generation.

Interestingly, neither Snow Leopard or Windows 7 appear designed to scale down to work effectively on the new generation of netbooks. Steve Jobs, on a conference call to Macworld, recently referred to this as a "nascent" market that Apple was watching. Similarly, Windows 7 is not designed to scale down to the performance of netbooks, which currently run either Linux or Windows XP. "It's something we're watching," said Ian Moulster.

So what comes next with Snow Leopard? We are confident that more information will be revealed by Steve Jobs on 6 January 2009 at the Macworld Expo and Conference in San Francisco. Hopefully more features will be revealed, although Apple appears fairly adamant that the next operating system is about performance and not features. It will be interesting to see Apple's response to Microsoft's adoption of touchscreen technology.

As for the actual release date, we expect to see Snow Leopard on sale in June 2009.

The release date for Windows 7 is a little more fuzzy. "You get stung if you get it wrong," said Ian Moulster. "People at PDC swill get a preview copy, but we're not announcing anything beyond that. Hopefully it won't be long."

Macworld UK is an InfoWorld affiliate.

This story, "Mac OS X Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7" was originally published by Macworld U.K..