Half of all Macs will lack access to security updates by summer

Mountain Lion's impending debut means Apple will stop supporting Snow Leopard, unless it changes a decade-old habit

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"The average seems to be about three years," said Andrew Storms, director of security operations for nCircle Security, talking about the length of time Apple provides security updates for a given edition of OS X. "That's not bad if you compare it to hardware amortization. But really, the bigger issue is that no one really knows. Apple doesn't communicate how long it will support a version or a roadmap for future releases."

John Pescatore, a Gartner analyst, agreed, citing Apple's lack of a roadmap as the biggest sticking point for companies that increasingly must manage Macs alongside Windows PCs. "That's not enterprise friendly," he said.

Apple's opacity stands in contrast to Microsoft, which has long clearly laid out its support lifecycle, and regularly reminds users when an edition of Windows or Office is nearing its end.

"When they decide to release a new OS X, if you're behind two [versions], you're DOA or SOL, take your pick," said Storms. "But we never see those blogs from Apple that we do from Microsoft reminding that you need to upgrade [to keep receiving security updates]."

Pescatore didn't have a problem with Apple's support lifecycle, calling it "in the middle" between Microsoft's 10-year policy for Windows and the constantly-updating cloud services like Google Apps or Microsoft's Office 365.

More to the point, Apple's shorter support stretch is how things are quickly leaning, said Pescatore, ticking off the typical two-year turnover of smartphones and businesses taking to the cloud because of continuous updates.

Customers, including IT managers, better get used to it.

"In the real world, IT is going to have less and less control over the OS," said Pescatore. "IT really doesn't want to operate that way -- they'll try to fight it -- but they're going to have to learn how. Fighting the trend is going to be impossible."

Even though the recent Flashback malware campaign has demonstrated that unsupported Leopard Macs were infected at a rate almost double its market share, Pescatore said the move to shorter support lifespans will continue. And customers will adopt. If they can't, the market will provide solutions -- as it has before for Windows -- to keep Macs safer.

And most users can upgrade when Apple releases a new operating system, Pescatore and Stevens noted.

While Apple has yet to define the migration path for Snow Leopard users, it has dropped hints that they may be able to upgrade to Mountain Lion: Snow Leopard machines can be boosted to Mountain Lion's developers preview.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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