Apple Snow Leopard Faces Windows 7 Fight

Aug 29, 2009 (03:08 AM EDT)

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Snow Leopard, the latest release of Mac OS X, doesn't look like much of an upgrade at first. User-facing features are few, and minor. Even Apple seems to acknowledge that it isn't a major upgrade, charging only $29 rather than the $129 price of previous versions of Mac OS X.

But don't tell any of that to Ken Case, CEO of Mac software developers, the Omni Group. For Case, Snow Leopard is huge.

"We love Snow Leopard," said Case, whose company develops the cult Mac applications OmniFocus and OmniGraffle. "From the point of view of developers, it's the biggest thing since OS X itself." OS X shipped on the desktop in 2001.

Snow Leopard had better be big. Apple faces a big challenge ahead. Amid Snow Leopard's August 28 release, Microsoft has already begun rolling out Windows 7 to enterprise customers, and the consumer version is due to ship October 22.

What's In Snow Leopard?

User-facing features are few, and not huge. But they're interesting. Snow Leopard supports Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 in the built-in Mail, iCal, and Address Book apps. The Finder is now based on Cocoa, Apple's standard Objective C development environment for the Mac. Now Finder performs faster and has user interface enhancements such as enhanced Spotlight search and icons.

Exposé and Stacks get refinements to make it easier to navigate through running applications and saved documents from the desktop. Snow Leopard also has faster Time Machine backups, and a new version of QuickTime.

But the biggest improvement visible to the end-user is performance: It runs a lot faster.

"It's snappier, more responsive, and feels more well-put-together," said Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, which makes a cross-platform note-taking and document-management app that runs on Macs, Windows, popular mobile devices, and the Web. "Snow Leopard is almost like the first couple of days after getting a new Mac, when everything is fresh and snappy. It's a good feeling."

Beyond that, the real enhancements are invisible to the end-user, said Case. They're underlying technologies and enhanced developer tools.

"This is the first release that's targeted at adding features developers care about, rather than things that end-users care about," Case said. "The last several releases have been adding features to the dashboard, cup-holders and things the driver cares about. Snow Leopard gives us more power under the hood, more energy we can spend."

Enhancements to Objective C will make developers more productive, able to upgrade products faster and make them more useful. For example, the new Objective C allows blocks of code to communicate with each other, eliminating the need for developers to write custom callbacks. That saves time and frees up developers to focus on improving how apps work, not just building the plumbing.

Other improvements to OS X -- mostly visible to the end-user in terms of faster performance, or scalability that won't be apparent for years -- include:

64-Bit Support: This enhancement speeds up applications, and allows the Mac to address massive amounts of memory. While today's Macs have the hardware capacity for up to 32 GB of physical memory, existing 32-bit applications can only address 4 GB at a time. With 64-bit computing, applications can address literally billions of times more memory -- 16 billion gigabytes, or 16 exabytes, to be precise. 64-bit support also allows computers to run numerical calculations twice as fast. The Mac's built-in applications, including the Finder, Mail, Safari, iCal, and iChat, are built with 64-bit code, making them faster. The OS is 32-bit compatible for older applications.

Added RAM Support: Snow Leopard supports increased the capacity for RAM support 500-fold, to 16 terabytes. That's a ridiculous number -- but gigabytes of RAM were ridiculous not too long ago.

Grand Central Dispatch: The technology built into the OS upgrade improves performance of multicore processors, in use throughout the current generation of Macs. "Applications run faster as part of the technology. That's a great end-user feature," Case said.

OpenCL Support: This is a C-like programming language designed to allow developers to make better use of graphics processors for general-purpose computing, not just graphics-intensive apps like games and 3D modeling.

QuickTime X: This media player uses Mac OS X technologies including Core Audio, Core Video, and Core Animation for enhanced playback. The QuickTime Player has a new user interface, with controls that fade out when not needed. QuickTime Player can capture audio and video using the Mac's built-in microphone and iSight camera, trim the video, and send it to iTunes to synch to an iPhone, iPod, or Apple TV, or publish to MobileMe or YouTube. Most of these capabilities required QuickTime Pro previously, which was priced at $29 -- the same price as Snow Leopard. As one friend of mine put it: It's like Apple came out with a new version of Quick Time Pro and threw in a whole new operating system for free.

Security Enhancements: Apple claims that 64-bit apps running on Snow Leopard are more secure than 32-bit versions because of "a better function-passing mechanism, hardware-based execution control for heap memory, and stronger checksums for preventing memory corruption attacks," my colleague Tom Claburn writes. And in a nod to hackers, Apple security firm Intego hints that Snow Leopard contains some level of anti-malware detection.

For Developers
Snow Leopard duplicates much of the code and APIs used in the iPhone. That makes it easier for developers to write apps with versions for both the Mac and iPhone, Evernote's Libin said. "For the first time in my life as a developer, I'm seeing results of the promise that you can share code with desktop and mobile versions," he said.

He plans for Evernote to use the same engine to synch both iPhone and Mac versions, as well as using geotagging to tag the location where data is captured on either platform.

Libin sees Snow Leopard as an investment by Apple in the future. "It's an incremental increase. It's solid, and much nicer, but there's not a lot of obvious changes, it's a thousand little changes. They set the price point low enough that most people are going to upgrade." Next-generation hardware will see great benefits from Snow Leopard, in better performance and graphics processing.

Apple also introduced Snow Leopard Server, priced at $499 for unlimited clients. As with the desktop version, Snow Leopard server is a steep discount from previous OS X upgrades, the unlimited version of Leopard server was $999, with a 10-user version priced at $499. Snow Leopard server includes administration tools, iCal, wiki, address book, and mobile access servers, as well as tools for producing and distributing podcasts.

Critical Timing
The Snow Leopard upgrades come at a critical time for Apple. Microsoft ships Windows 7 Oct. 22, less than eight weeks after Snow Leopard. The new version features user interface improvements, and enhanced stability and performance. Reviews have overall been positive.

For example, my colleague Alexander Wolfe looked at the release candidate in May and, although he had some issues, he said, "I've just taken half an hour out of my busy day to install the new Windows 7 Release Candidate and boy, am I happy."

Libin agreed. "I was pretty down on Windows for a while. I got rid of my last Windows computer several years ago and upgraded the family to Macs. I got tired of doing tech support for my wife and family," he said. But he bought a PC recently, and installed the pre-release Windows 7 on it. "It's been surprisingly nice. I'm coming around to thinking that Microsoft is going to have a hit with Windows 7."

Will Windows 7 stop Windows users from switching to Mac? Will it make people who've already switched switch back? Libin isn't sure. "Windows 7 is a big jump forward for Microsoft, Snow Leopard is incremental for Mac. Maybe the total lead that Mac had over Microsoft in terms of user quality will be smaller this fall than it was in the past couple of years."

The biggest threat to Apple comes from the emerging popularity of netbooks and other inexpensive PCs. Apple specializes in high-end systems, while Windows is available on both high-end and inexpensive machines. The emerging popularity of low-priced, low-powered PCs, combined with Windows 7 improvements, could be a one-two punch against Apple.

On the other hand, Snow Leopard could be a kind of stealth weapon for Apple. "Snow Leopard won't make a huge impact overnight for the Mac," Case said. "But the lasting impact will be making this a stronger developer platform. You've seen what happens with the iPhone when you have a good developer platform." Availability of rich, third-party applications have helped drive popularity for the iPhone.

Apple says users downloaded 1.5 billion apps from the App Store in its first year of operation, which ended in July, with more than 65,000 apps from 10,000 developers available.

Apple is the third-largest smartphone vendor, but only has 3% market share, trailing Nokia and RIM, according to Gartner. Apple, however, is growing fast: It had 13% market share in the second quarter of this year, up from 3% in the year-ago quarter.

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster predicts Apple will sell 5 million copies of Snow Leopard through the end of the current quarter. By Friday August 21st, a week before Snow Leopard went on sale, it was already the top-selling product in the Amazon software category.

For Further Reading

Apple Mac OS X Snow Leopard Coverage

Apple's Snow Leopard Brings Compatibility, Security Concerns

Is Snow Leopard Coming With Antivirus?

Mixed Review For Windows 7 Release Candidate

Windows 7 Under The Microscope