Apple executives took potshots at Microsoft's Windows 7 today as they trumpeted the September release of the company's own Snow Leopard operating system and its $29 upgrade price.
"What a big hole Microsoft has dug," Bertrand Serlet, Apple's head of software engineering, said during the keynote of the company's annual WorldWide Developers Conference (WWDC), which opened today in San Francisco. "They're trying to get out of it with Windows 7 [but] it's the same old technology as Vista. Fundamentally, it's just another version of Vista."
But the more Serlet talked up Snow Leopard, the more he sounded like a Microsoft executive outlining Windows 7. Both Apple and Microsoft, for example, have described their next operating systems as less about new features and more about building on the foundation of their respective predecessors, with special emphasis on performance, stability and usability.
Serlet made that crystal clear. "We love Leopard, so we decided to build upon Leopard," he said. "We want to build a better Leopard."
That's not much different than what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said last October as he defended Vista while also claiming that Windows 7 would be a major release, something most analysts dispute. "[Windows 7], it's Windows Vista, a lot better," said Ballmer at the time.
Analysts noticed the similarities today. "People aren't interested in bigger and heavier, loading in all these features," said Allen Krans of Technology Business Research. "They want something that works, that's simple and intuitive to use."
"This just addresses the reality," added Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "In both cases, we are dealing with companies offering updates to fundamentally mature products. There will be some additions due to new hardware support -- Blu-Ray, for example -- but to a large extent, what is going to matter more and more is security, stability and performance."
But Apple did highlight two differences between Snow Leopard and Windows 7 today: The former will beat the latter to store shelves, and Apple's OS will cost considerably less than Microsoft's.
Although Apple didn't pin the release of Snow Leopard to a specific day in September, if it meets its schedule, Mac OS X 10.6 will appear weeks before Windows 7. Last week, Microsoft announced Windows 7 would go on sale Oct. 22.
But does it matter? Cherry didn't think so. "I don't envision that anyone is really saying to themselves: 'I need a new computer, and whoever ships first gets my business,'" he said.
Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner, agreed. "I don't think Apple beating Microsoft to release by a few weeks matters," he said. "They will both miss back-to-school and one could say that this may even be more important for Apple and thus a bigger miss."
On price, Apple looks like the clear winner. While Microsoft has not yet revealed Windows 7's prices, it's hard to believe that the company would match Apple's $29 for a single-user license to upgrade from Leopard or the $49 cost of the five-license Family Pack. According to a leaked Best Buy memo, for instance, the retailer will sell a $50 upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium, but only for 16 days starting June 26.
Again, the analysts didn't think the numbers matter as much as some might think. "In the long term, [the price difference] has no impact," said Krans. "The challenge of Windows 7 is reaching those usability and performance standards that weren't met with Vista."
Silver, however, took a different tack. "I think the pricing of the next release [of Mac OS X] will be more telling," he said. "Is this release $29 because it's more of a Leopard refresh, and will the next release go back to $129?"
But he also saw some gamesmanship in play. "There could be some desire from Apple to force Microsoft to price Windows 7 more aggressively, and cut into their upgrade revenue."
From Krans' view, Microsoft would be smart to ignore the slings and arrows of Mac users bragging that Snow Leopard ships first and costs less. "What Microsoft needs to focus on, and what they are focusing on from all indications, is on what people want. And that's [an OS that is] quicker and lighter and gets what you need to get done, done."
Both Apple and Microsoft also have plans to provide free or nearly-free upgrades to their new operating system for customers who purchase a computer in the months before the OS releases.
Apple announced its program, called "Mac OS X Snow Leopard Up-To-Date," today, saying the people who buy a qualifying Leopard-powered Mac between June 8 and Dec. 26 will be offered a copy of Snow Leopard for a $9.95 shipping and handling charge.
Microsoft unveiled the name of its program -- "Windows 7 Upgrade Option" -- but little else last week. Other sources, however, have been reporting since January that the deal will run from June 26, 2009, to Jan. 31, 2010, and provide free or discounted upgrades from Vista to Windows 7.
Apple's Snow Leopard announcement came at WWDC, where company executives, led by Philip Schiller, Apple's head of marketing, also launched a top-to-bottom refresh of the company's laptop line and introduced the iPhone 3G S smartphone.
As expected by many, though not all, analysts, CEO Steve Jobs, who is on medical leave until the end of this month, did not make an appearance.