Opinion: Looks or brains -- Windows 7 and Apple's Snow Leopard

When designing an OS update, what do you sell -- UI beauty or processing brawn?

I don't need to tell you that Microsoft's long-awaited/long-delayed latest and greatest operating system -- Windows Vista -- hasn't been the success Microsoft envisioned. Sales have remained slow since Vista emerged in January 2007. Many would-be Vista users buying new computers turn into won't-be users by downgrading to XP. Corporations and IT staffers are pretty clear in their efforts to avoid it. Microsoft is even reassuring customers that they can skip Vista and move from XP directly to Windows 7. So pundits are scrambling to ask -- and then answer -- the question of why Vista failed.

They're asking the wrong question. Forget why it failed. Ask why it would have succeeded in the first place and how it would have proved its value. And then ask what this means for Windows 7, and more important, for chief rival Apple.

That's not so big a rhetorical leap, really. As Microsoft is busy prepping Windows 7 -- and making a splash, as it did in January by releasing a public beta -- Apple is quietly developing Mac OS X 10.6, a.k.a. Snow Leopard. (Apple doesn't generally do public betas, leaving tea-leaf readers to tell us what's coming.)

Like Windows 7, Snow Leopard will be more about refinement -- and less about revolution -- than recent OS X updates. It builds on the previous OS, Leopard, and isn't supposed to introduce new whiz-bang features.

Microsoft, for its part, is promulgating a big, long list of new features and changing the branding entirely in an attempt to blot Vista from the collective memory. But there still won't be a new kernel, file system, speech technology or holographic interface, and no antigravity tweaks, either. So we'll stick with the "refinement" argument.

Snow Leopard was announced last June with a planned release date set at of "about a year." (Latest guess: June 8.) The promise -- the value proposition -- is that this release will include major under-the-hood improvements, things that are hard to demo and that many users won't even notice, things like much better multicore processor support (along with a clever way to help developers cook this into their apps), a new QuickTime, support for using GPUs for general processing, and other invisible changes that will, says Apple, lay the "foundation" for future improvements.

This has been a frustrating turn for Mac rumor sites, which are left to publish images of minor interface tweaks when Apple pushes out a new build to the developer community. From what little Apple has said so far, and from what's leaked about recent builds, the upcoming changes sound like something I'm interested in -- even to the point of paying for it. After all, reliability and speed are productivity features. Personally, I wasn't thrilled with Mac OS X 10.5 from a features point of view. But with a spanking new, turbocharged engine and the promise those under-the-hood changes offer, I'm interested.

Windows 7, on the other hand, is being pitched as an entirely new experience. That's how Microsoft, and just about every OS maker, usually does it -- remember "Start Me Up" and all that hype around Windows 95? To be fair, Apple tries to sell its stuff, too, but somehow in a less embarrassing way.

Look, new experiences can be good, if done well. But new isn't inherently better. Think Aero. Or those pinstriped menus in early versions of Mac OS X.

Of course there are under-the-hood boosts to Windows 7. Computerworld Editor in Chief Scot Finnie has said that it smooths out some of Vista's bumps, which were apparent even at its launch. And, indeed, most of the changes are positive. But this doesn't make fans want to fire up the lighters they're used to raising when new OSs take the stage and show off fancy new costumes.

Even Steve Ballmer is backpedaling now, saying that Windows 7 will be like Vista, only "a lot better." How so? Well, it required a lot of work to make, he says. Sure, and it's a lot of work to dig out a house that collapsed because of shoddy construction, maybe even more work than it would take to build a house correctly in the first place. That doesn't mean the collapsed house was better.

I'm not sure if anyone in Windows Land is buying this -- or will buy the OS. The consensus seems to be that Windows 7 can hardly fail to be better than Vista. I mean, what could it do? Actually eat your printer instead of just refuse to recognize it? But will a me-too, multitouch feature really be a solid value proposition so that people and corporations will risk another time- and resource-eating upgrade cycle for it?

Perhaps the engineers and marketing folks could have had an honest discussion about what's really new. What's wrong with a huge tune-up for an operating system -- or pitching it that way publicly? At least Microsoft could have put work where it was really needed. That time has long passed, but Ballmer and company would rather not think of it that way, and they will do their best to make you not think of it that way.

My virtual colleague Preston Gralla seems to be worried that this is the case. He looked at Windows 7's promised list of innovations, found it lacking and concluded it could be Vista SP2. So maybe it will be seen as an OS release that fixes things under the hood but doesn't really offer much in the way of new and flashy.

But who could sell a product like that?

Apple, maybe?

Dan Turner has been writing about science and technology for over a decade at publications such as Salon, eWeek, MacWeek and The New York Times.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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