Mac OS X Snow Leopard: Apple's secret business weapon?

The new OS's focus on processing promises faster apps and a more stable enterprise base

Judging from initial accounts, the next version of the Mac OS X, named Snow Leopard, will be aimed squarely at business and enterprise users, signaling a formal push by Apple to take Windows head on outside the consumer and education markets. "Apple is taking the Mac OS one step closer to the enterprise," says Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupiter Research.

Apple declined to comment on its plans for the new Mac OS, other than to reiterate the sketchy details it released at the recent Worldwide Developers Conference. Snow Leopard -- the numerical version is not yet set -- is slated to ship in summer 2009, six months or so before Windows 7's scheduled debut.

Higher performance and Exchange support at the core
Apple's plans for Snow Leopard mainly involve improving application performance, as well as bringing Microsoft Exchange Synchronization into the OS itself, so Apple's iCal, Address Book, and Mail will be Exchange-enabled out of the box.

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The performance changes include making the Mac OS 64-bit and providing an architecture called Grand Central that lets developers take better advantage of multiple-core processors. Mac OS X Snow Leopard will also add support for the Open Computing Language (OpenCL), which will let application developers directly tap graphics processors in the Macs. Apple also promises faster processing of dynamic media via QuickTime X and a 50 percent improvement in JavaScript performance to speed Web apps.

"We're excited about Snow Leopard from a reliability and performance perspective," says Pat Lee, group manager for consumer products at EMC's VMware subsidiary. "For us, it will make running Windows [via VMware Fusion on a Mac] better than ever." He cites the 64-bit OS and use of OpenCL as two key boosts to Fusion's future performance.

The performance improvements, if delivered as promised, will appeal to Mac users of every stripe, but the Exchange support is evidence that Apple is targeting the enterprise. A high-performance Mac OS X with built-in Exchange support that continues to be hardware-compatible with standard PC equipment and support Windows through products such as Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion should appeal strongly to business users, says analyst Gartenberg. "It could bring business users to the Mac," concurs VMware's Lee.

A more stable OS strategy should appeal to businesses
Mac OS X Snow Leopard will not be a major shift in terms of user experience and functionality, says Tim Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies. The name Snow Leopard itself suggests that the next Mac OS X won't be a radical departure from its predecessor, Leopard, he notes.

Bajarin likens the expected user experience in upgrading to Snow Leopard to that of installing a Windows service pack, which may offer significant improvements in the OS but doesn't change the user experience or break the application base. "If I'm Apple, I want to get new people in the fold, and I don't want to confuse them with a new OS every 18 months," he says. "Businesses don't want to see a new OS every 18 months because it's very disruptive," Gartenberg agrees.

Both analysts see a method to Apple's slowing down of major Mac OS X releases since the highly disruptive, nearly all-new Mac OS X 10.0 appeared in 2001. That year, Apple released 10.0 Cheetah in March and 10.1 Puma in August. The 10.2 Jaguar version followed in August 2002, and 10.3 Panther shipped in October 2003. Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger took a bit longer, arriving in April 2005, and the current Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard came out after an even longer interval, in October 2007. Snow Leopard is planned to arrive after a similar, roughly two-year interval.

Although Mac OS X has evolved dramatically since its 2001 debut, both Bajarin and Gartenberg note that Apple has very carefully smoothed the transition path from each version to the next, with minimal hiccoughs. "That smooth transition is especially important as the user base grows," Bajarin notes.

The disappointment over the disruptive transition from Windows XP to Windows Vista may make it even easier for businesses to consider adopting Mac OS X Snow Leopard. Already, researchers have noted an uptake in business adoption of the Mac OS. "When you push users off a platform rather than try to pull them in, the first thing they say is that they don't want to go to your destination," Gartenberg says. In that context, "a migration to Mac OS X might not be [more disruptive] than going to Vista or Windows 7," he notes.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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