10.6.08. Looking to a Snow Leopard Winter.. er... Summer.

I’m a bit excited about Mac OS X “Snow Leopard”. Few user-visible changes, with a focus on fine-tuning and giving developers better access to capabilities of modern hardware. It appears that Apple’s experience in making a lightweight Mac OS X “Core OS” for the iPhone will also drive this release.

One of my favorite operating system releases was OS/2 “Warp” (OS/2 3.0). OS/2 2.0 was a fascinating creature - completely divorced from Microsoft, OS/2 2.0 delivered an aggressively object-oriented runtime built on SOM (a desktop implementation of some of CORBA 1.x, I believe). It was radically different from Window 3.x. It’s hardware requirements were a bit high for the times, but it was a solid OS.

What impressed me about OS/2 3.0 “Warp” was that it’s system requirements were in some cases significantly LESS than OS/2 2.0, while performing better. I don’t know of any majoro user-visible adjustments (this was before operating system releases became the giant dog’n’pony shows that have been expected since both Windows 95 and Mac OS X).

I think that even though desktop and laptop hardware continue to get better, the rapid growth rates seen between 1995 and 2005 are slowing down. Now the pressure is on connectivity, portability, and storage storage storage for all of those mp3s and movies and photos. I think both Windows XP and Vista, along with Mac OS X 10.4 and particularly 10.5 have been a bit cavalier about their usage / expectation of resource availability without doing a good job of cleaning up afterwards. Removing a ‘TemporaryFiles’ folder used by Apple’s “Soundtrack Pro” program gave me back 25 GB of disk space. 25GB! I expect that when doing lossless audio work, I’m going to leave a lot of turds behind. But not that many. That’s an accumulation over only a few months. Now some of that may have been due to crashes brought on by the instability in Mac OS X 10.5.2’s audio subsystem (particularly in relation to some USB audio devices). But still - 25 gig! Over the course of just a couple of months!

I think that Apple is at a good place to do this. Good housekeeping is required - otherwise you end up with situations like Mac OS ‘Classic’ or even Windows Vista, where there is so much old baggage, bad hacks, outdated mentalities, etc, all in play; it makes it difficult to move the platform forward. Some companies and developers have always been mindful of this, electing to keep their products lean and fast, always (see Ableton Live - hands down, the most impressive audio application out there). Other companies don’t support that philosophy for whatever reason - backwards compatibility, rush to market, a combination of the two, etc.

This far into the Mac OS X life cycle, there’s not many new dog’n’pony features to add. The API’s have stabalized, the developer tools offer more than they ever have (Interface Builder 3 is a terrific update), the Finder and Spotlight are actually fast and usable; applications and utilities from both inside and outside of Apple are going to really shine on Mac OS X 10.5 with all that it offers to developers. A new age of PDA’s are upon us, whether it’s a device like an iPhone, an ultra-mobile Asus Eee-PC style portable, or even the Macbook Air: secondary and tertiary devices are really taking off.

I think that an underlying aspect part of the ‘Snow Leopard’ plan is to allow such devices, made by Apple (naturally), to proliferate. When it was announced that the iPhone was built on Mac OS X, I was surprised - Mac OS X has been a pretty wasteful OS - or at least, one that would consume more resources than realized (often for caching, interestingly enough). A standard install is full of crap that may be useful, but often takes up space. How many gigabytes of printer drivers now? To take the fine tuning and resource management ideas from the iPhone variation of OS X into the main system is what I think will allow for Apple to finally make the Eee PC style portable that everyone wanted the Macbook Air to be.

I’m putting my money on some kind of small device, priced around $600-$800, coming out at or around the same time as Snow Leopard. Combined with Mobile Me and Snow Leopard Server’s increasingly Exchange-like feature set (but better priced and more understandable for small organizations), the ubiquitous-data-access capability is there.

Today’s full-featured laptops (MacBooks, Inspirons, whatever) are their own entities; my aging iBook gets used rarely as I just don’t have as much data or software set up on it, and it’s sometimes too big of a pain to keep in sync.

The XO and Eee-PCs (or whatever they’re called) are also separate from the rest of one’s life; useful as a fun or educational toy, or as a geek’s favorite gadget to see what they can get running on such a little device. Most of the other developments I’ve seen in this area have centered around “how cheap and how small can we make a laptop/portable that will run (Linux/Windows XP)”. But outside of education, if this is the only focus being given, then these companies are going to be making nothing more than the next round of casual gadgets that get tossed or buried after a few months - especially if a key factor of what made Palm devices so popular (for a while) is completely neglected.

The Macbook Air is deliberately designed as a complementary computer, using the master’s optical drive even. While sexy, I think the Macbook Air misses the mark on a few items. But I think it’s an indication of things to come - laptops deliberately designed to complement your main machine. Smaller devices, from the Palm to the iPhone, have done this. And they’ll also be designed to work with your (or your company’s) data, which the Blackberry has done (and the iPhone will do when its new ‘enterprise’ support rolls out). Getting this onto other devices, without being constrained to an enterprisey system like Notes or Outlook, is where things really appear to be headed. It’s certainly something that I’d like to have. And the more I look at Snow Leopard, the more I believe that Apple is sneaking ahead of the crowd into delivering this into the hands of consumers. They’re skating to where the puck is going to be.

Granted, Windows “Live Mesh” looks to be heading in the same direction. But after Vista, Microsoft needs to reign in the Windows kernel and distribution. Windows Server 2008 and some of what has been leaked (or speculated) about “Windows 7” seem to indicate that Microsoft is aware of this. And how could they not be? But I think that even with their vast resources, Microsoft has a long ways to go to catch up - even though it appears that they’ve been playing in this area (tablet computing, ultra-mobile pc’s) for a while. A deep cleansing of the Windows core is desparately needed. And then a deep re-implementation of the UI may be needed.

Apple had a terrific luxury (and great idea) with the iPhone. While sharing the same kernel and many same APIs as the desktop (and server) Mac OS X, it has an entirely new UI that is dedicated to its intended use. Windows CE, on the other hand, tried to bring the Windows 95 look and feel to tiny devices and now I’m really not so sure it was a good idea. It allowed Microsoft to punt on some usability and design issues by falling back on the way things work on the desktop. I still see this, even in some of the newest and fanciest “iPhone killers”: some of these have a very fancy launcher app; some even have a very fancy phone and contact app that spins around in 3D and responds to gestures. But then, suddenly, you’re in the tiny-font, tiny-scrollbar, pixelated, stylus-driven world of the interior. It’s like going into a grand building like The Plaza (back when it was a hotel, at least), and finding the inside full of grey linoleum floors, flickering flourescent lights, and cinderblock walls reminiscent of an old hospital or elementary school. Quite the let-down (a lot of courthouses are like this, actually).

I also think Apple was smart to NOT have an SDK at the launch of the iPhone. I bet they would have liked one, but I think the iPhone had to launch when it did, and perhaps not-quite-everything was ready yet. If one looks back at the classic Macintosh and Palm devices and operating systems, you see systems that pulled of very clever hacks to fit within the price and size constraints of the time. The Lisa was much more than a $10,000 Macintosh - it had many features from power management to an OpenDoc style multi-tasking document based UI. But to offer those features, it was priced well out of reach. The Macintosh squeezed as much as it could down into a 128K Ram machine, and the compromises they had to make in order for that to work would end up haunting the company until its near-death. The Palm, too, took the ideas of the Newton and other tablet devices and stripped them down into a size and price point approachable by the masses. And like Apple, the design decisions that were made to make that work have crippled the Palm OS so much that even Palm sells half of its devices with Windows CE (or whatever CE is called these days). Those compromises are bad enough to deal with on your own - but when having to support third party developers and then provide some degree of backwards compatibility, it can just kill you.

By taking the time to put the SDK into beta, to polish up the OS and its APIs, I think Apple will avoid a repeat of that story. Instead of having to support every little exposed compromise that may have been made to get the iPhones out the door last June, Apple could tidy them up. By using a beta period for the SDK and next major release of the software, Apple can respond to feedback and make changes and adjustments before they become permanent.

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