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Mac OS X Snow Leopard is coming: Yes, do upgrade!

By Carmi Levy, Betanews

If nothing else, the operating system market these days is infinitely entertaining. Consider the humble upgrade.

Some OS upgrades, like XP-to-Vista on a marginally capable machine, demand more up-front planning than the end result is often worth. You end up spending money and time on a machine that, while it may look prettier, runs slower and gives you more headaches than it solves. Other upgrade scenarios, like Vista-to-Windows 7, are a lot more straightforward and easier for most folks to justify.

There’s a third class I like to call the no-brainer upgrade. And Apple fans with relatively recent Intel-based Macs find themselves blessed as the Cupertino company prepares for tomorrow’s general release of Mac OS X 10.6, otherwise known as Snow Leopard.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)In the overall scheme of things, Snow Leopard isn’t a huge deal over 10.5 Leopard. Now that release was a pretty major bump over 10.4, so anything short of an OS capable of making breakfast and serving it up in bed for us would likely be greeted by a yawn from the Apple faithful. But evolutionary as it is, 10.6 packs enough goodness into itself that it’s difficult to see too many Macs running 10.5 by year’s end. Here’s why:

  1. It’s smaller. In a world where every new version of a thing is inevitably bigger, fatter and heavier than the thing it replaces, it’s pleasantly shocking to see Apple swimming against the tide. Once the upgrade process is completed, the average Mac’s hard drive will have available about 6 GB more space. Sure, that’s barely enough to stuff a couple of movies, but merely the principle of making the OS smaller in the first place is enough for me.
  2. It’s cheaper. We’ve been conditioned to paying triple-digit prices for operating systems almost since the beginning of the PC era. If Apple had asked for 9 for a 10.6 upgrade (the same price it asked for 10.5) I’d probably have carefully weighed the nice-to-have-but-hardly-necessary benefits against the price approaching that of the iPod nano I need for the car. But for 29 bucks, enough to cover a few frames of bowling for me and the munchkins, it’s a fast, discretionary purchase. (Amazon has marked prices down even further, to for the basic upgrade package, or .99 for the five-user package.) I could get used to this mad money OS pricing strategy, and I’d rather spend it on this than on a game I absolutely abhor.

Snow Leopard also has enough goodies stuffed inside that it’ll provide far more than in entertainment value alone. Since that money will go a lot further on my wife’s and son’s Macs than it would watching a lousy movie next to a bunch of unruly theater-goers and munching overpriced, stale popcorn, I’m voting we cancel the family movie night on Saturday and stay in. My wife and son are already backing up their data, and have scheduled some time on the weekend to bump their machines. And I didn’t even have to work on them.

Coming on the heels of my recent writings on Windows 7 upgrades, this might sound a bit odd. Am I not the same guy who railed against shrink-wrap upgrades on some older hardware? Am I also not the dad who refused to force his kid to dump XP?

Yes, and yes. And I’m sticking to my story. Because you can’t compare Apples to…uh, Windows. Upgrading an OS in Apple Land is worlds apart from doing the same thing in Windows. By virtue of the fact that Apple builds and controls the hardware, upgrading a Mac is by definition a more controlled process than upgrading a Windows box, whose iterations after all possible hardware combinations are considered can easily run into the billions. The cynic in me says Macs are dumbed down enough that everyday folks can confidently update their own OS. The realist in me wonders why Microsoft, whose Windows 7 is justifiably being praised for raising the state of the OS art, is only figuring that out just now.

Snow LeopardDelivering an OS upgrade for under 30 bucks is one of those game changing moves that forever alters how consumers view a given product or service. The tech industry is full of price-driven moments like this, like when PCs finally dropped below ,000, cell phone rate plans went from /minute to unlimited, and digital cameras plummeted from the ,000 range to 0 or less. These days, sub-0 netbooks are redefining our perceptions of price and value, and giving hardware vendors fits in the process. In all cases, drastic price reductions thanks to rapid, economies-of-scale-driven advances in technology turned former luxuries into everyday appliances that even kids could afford. It’s only natural that OS pricing would follow.

Now, there’s nothing that says Apple won’t crank the price up again when it releases v11, which will obviously be a much more significant and fundamental change than a mere decimal point product. But its pricing strategy for the 10.6 upgrade shifts consumer pricing expectations downward, and we all know that once they descend, they don’t easily rise back up again.

Cheap, however, doesn’t mean free. Various flavors of Linux, including some superbly well baked distros like Ubuntu, continue to thrive as shining examples of open source goodness. I thank my lucky stars every day that they exist, as they exert a definite influence on the broader market and keep pressure on major vendors like Apple and Microsoft to keep the innovation pipeline on their own products well stocked. And as much as we’d all like to believe every OS and app we load onto our machines should be free, free doesn’t pay the rent, and at some point there’s got to be a business model to ensure the product survives. Since operating systems don’t benefit as cleanly from the advertising baseline that supports so many Web services, the user’s got to fork out something come upgrade time. (We’ll leave Google Chrome OS for another day.)

But in pushing the pricing envelope for a commercial offering and challenging other expectations about what an upgrade is and should be, Apple’s thrown yet another gauntlet down in a growing battle for OS supremacy. With less than two months to go before Windows 7 goes gold, this may yet be the golden era of the operating system. Where’s my popcorn?

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

Copyright Betanews, Inc. 2009

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