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

It's not as tough a sell as you'd think

By Dan Turner
June 13, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - SAN FRANCISCO -- It merited only an aside in Apple CEO Steve Jobs' keynote here 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.

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 a 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 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.



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