While the iPhone 3G predictably stole the show at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) last week, there was also a significant -- albeit somewhat cryptic -- announcement from the Mac side of the house. Apple unveiled a preview of the upcoming upgrade to Mac OS X, dubbed "Snow Leopard," and said that it would be short on slick front-end features and heavy on back-end performance improvements. It will ship in mid-2009.
In speaking about the new version of the OS at WWDC, Jobs said, "We're going to hit the pause button on new features." Then he explained that the emphasis would instead be placed on rebuilding the foundation of the Mac operating system to prepare for the future.
"The way the processor industry is going is to add more and more cores," Jobs said, "but nobody knows how to program those things. I mean, two, yeah; four, not really; eight, forget it.""We're going to hit the pause button on new features." -- Steve Jobs
Apple said that it will make a parallel-computing breakthrough with Snow Leopard by using a new technology that it has code-named "Grand Central" to enable software developers to better utilize the power of the current and future multi-core processors. Plus, OS X 10.6 will also tap into the power of graphics processors with Open Computing Language (OpenCL) in order to use some of that processing power for general computing tasks, when needed.
Other Snow Leopard advances announced:
- Raises the amount of potential RAM to 16 terabytes
- New QuickTime X "optimizes support for modern audio and video formats resulting in extremely efficient media playback"
- Provides out-of-the-box integration with Exchange Server 2007 in Mail, iCal, and Address Book
In Apple's official statement about Snow Leopard, Bertrand Serlet, senior vice president of Software Engineering, said,
"We have delivered more than a thousand new features to OS X in just seven years and Snow Leopard lays the foundation for thousands more. In our continued effort to deliver the best user experience, we hit the pause button on new features to focus on perfecting the world’s most advanced operating system"
While Apple should be applauded for being transparent with developers and users about the fact that the next version of Mac OS X Leopard will not contain a ton of flashy new features, it could be a tough sell to get Mac owners to pony up their usual $99 for an upgrade that primarily re-pours the foundation and fixes the plumbing.
Average users probably won't notice most of the Snow Leopard updates, with the exception of Exchange support, which will certainly be welcomed by business users since the current Exchange options in OS X are less than ideal. It's also difficult to see the new features driving demand for Macs in the short term. However, if Apple makes it easier to develop multi-threaded applications on OS X than Microsoft does for Windows then Apple could score a big long-term win that would be felt.