Apple's Snow Leopard: an OS without new features?

It's not as tough a sell as you'd think -- and Apple is leaving the door ajar for a few new features

It merited only an aside in Apple CEO Steve Jobs' keynote at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). The real information about the next version of Mac OS X, if any, was flashed later in the day only to developers, and only under a nondisclosure agreement that promises vengeance unto the third generation if broken. So what we know about that operating system, dubbed Snow Leopard, is: It exists. And the widespread pre-WWDC rumors were on target when they said that Snow Leopard, unlike, oh, every other major OS X revision, will feature ... no new features.

[ For more news out of Apple's developers show, check out Tom Yager's exclusive scoops from WWDC ]

Perhaps Jobs hadn't planned even on mentioning Snow Leopard, but the rumors forced his hand. But no new features? Isn't it new features that sell a new product? Jobs is a master marketer, but how does he sell new and improved without newness and improvements he can demo on stage?

To be exact, "no new features" isn't completely accurate. Apple has opened the trench coat a bit, putting up a page on its site about the client version of Snow Leopard that most of us will see and page about the server version.

Snow Leopard will have built-in support for Microsoft's Exchange 2007, though only through Exchange Web Services; more 64-bit goodness, which could support up to "a theoretical (says Apple) 16 terabytes of RAM; and a new QuickTime X. Those are what most users could experience directly. Under the hood, it will have "Grand Central," the awesomely named "set of technologies" that will allow better usage of multicore CPUs, and Open Compute Library (OpenCL), which will allow applications to tap into the processing power of a computer's GPU. Those things tend to sit relatively idle, anyway -- unless you're running Quake XXI or whatever, it'll be up to by the time Snow Leopard is released.

About that, at least, the rumors were wrong. Although speculation pegged a release at Macworld '09 in January, the time frame is apparently about a year out. No dates were mentioned, of course, and no promises made. That's probably as it should be, at this point. Ask a different large consumer operating system company about delivery delays. Sure, they'll appreciate that.

Given that details are lacking, let's unpack a few things Apple did say.

First: "Rather than focusing primarily on new features, Snow Leopard will enhance the performance of OS X, set a new standard for quality and lay the foundation for future OS X innovation."

Spy anything missing? Note the change from "Mac OS X" to "OS X." Aside from saving me keystrokes, what does that mean? Much like the change from Apple Computer Inc. to Apple Inc., it could signal the eventual direction of the company, or even computing. Apple wants to promote the idea of the iPhone operating system as its own product, ecosystem, development environment. It's not a crippled operating system, but one to build on. I already leave my laptop at home more, since I can get a lot of work done via e-mail and the Web on my iPhone. How much more would it take for the iPhone to make laptops superfluous?

By dropping "Mac" from the name, Apple subtly focuses attention more on the operating system itself, not the hardware on which it runs.

As for Snow Leopard, it seems what Apple is doing is leaving the door ajar for a few new features. After all, who knows what could pop up in a year's time with Apple's operating system developers playing with Core Animation and other recent tech advances (like multitouch). But really, it's all about the guts. It's like a cleansing fast: purge the crud that's been building up over years, the toxins and redundancies that slow you down with that bloated and not-so-fresh feeling.

That is, indeed, something to be lauded. Every time I talk to a Microsoft representative, they say they're excited about another new feature they've crammed into what used to be -- Word 5.1a forever! -- a lean and mean word processor. They have a point that all of these features have been requested by some customer, and they're just giving Jerry in Topeka what he asked for. And what Angela in Brooklyn asked for. And what Raj in Vancouver asked for. And so it goes. The result ends up being the equivalent of a child's room if you buy the kid every toy he ever wanted. Try walking across the room, or even seeing the floor.

I'm liking this idea. Quality, not quantity.

Like any large project that's been in development for a decade, OS X has had its share of false starts, dead ends, supplanted tech, and probably some commented code in there that was funny at the time.

I'll agree that going through millions line of code, as well as higher-level decisions on architecture, could take more than a year to do. And I'm sold on how this could be a solid value to all users and developers, not to mention its advantages for new tech such as multicore.

But how much would you pay just to ensure your laptop, iPhone, or iMac were running the cleanest code on the planet? It'd be a tough sell, even for Jobs, if Snow Leopard comes in as a $100 or more upgrade, even in U.S. dollars. Of course, if he also announces that the new slim, trim OS X runs 20 percent faster on the same hardware, maybe the sale wouldn't be so hard to make. Personally, I'm hoping the retail price comes in somewhere closer to $29.95 -- not the $129 Apple usually charges for each OS X leap. That'd be a coup. Jobs could even say, "How much would you have paid if Microsoft did this with Vista?"

Something else that Apple said: "Snow Leopard dramatically reduces the footprint of Mac OS X, making it even more efficient for users, and giving them back valuable hard drive space for their music and photos."

This has led some users to conclude that Snow Leopard will drop support for Power PC Macs, and those users are already upset. Sure, Apple hasn't sold anything but Intel-based Macs for two years (three by the time of Snow Leopard's release), but a dual-G5 Power Mac with maxxed-out RAM and a good video card is still a powerhouse system, even for high-end use like video editing. And in general, Mac users tend to hold onto their machines far longer than PC users.

If Apple's cutting loose Power PC processors, it wouldn't be the first time an operating system maker has ditched old computer architectures. I mean, some of the new computers that shipped with Vista preinstalled couldn't really run Vista.

However, the "no new features" thing could eliminate some of the sting for Power PC users, if indeed they are cut off. After all, Snow Leopard will pretty much look and feel like Leopard, which Apple will continue to update, and there should be no compatibility problems. And besides, Power PC users wouldn't be able to take advantage of Grand Central, and maybe OpenCL, anyway.

In the longer term, sure, cheapskates (I am one of them) will give in to the siren call of new hardware as Snow Leopard's successor rolls around with must-have new features. But that time frame is well within the realistic replacement cycle for this kind of tech product.

There now, don't you feel better about Snow Leopard already? You can't pull this kind of no-new-features move every operating system release cycle, but now and then? It's a good thing.

Dan Turner has been writing about science and technology for over a decade at publications, including Salon, eWeek, MacWeek, and The New York Times. Computerworld is an InfoWorld affiliate.

This story, "Apple's Snow Leopard: an OS without new features?" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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