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The Autumn of OS Upgrades



meWe might still be a few weeks away from the official first day of fall, but the weather here in the Northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia this week has turned wonderfully autumn like. With the coming of fall this year comes more than just the promise of cooler weather. It also brings the onset of operating system upgrades. Both Microsoft and Apple are unleashing updated versions of their operating systems. Apple, looking to get a leg up, released Snow Leopard last week, and Microsoft will officially roll out Windows 7 on October 22, although it has largely been available in its RTM variant for anyone who wants it for some time now.

But, as always operating system upgrades are designed not only to improve the computing experience, but hopefully to unleash purchases of newer hardware and software throughout the industry. But do Snow Leopard and Windows 7 really offer enough in new features and new excitement   to spur sales in other segments of the industry?

I’m not so sure. I’ve installed both new operating systems and both have been pleasurable experiences so far. Neither offers much flash and dash out of the box, but both improve on what preceded them. Speaking of Flash, it looks like Apple included an earlier release of Adobe’s Flash that contains security vulnerabilities in the Snow Leopard release and the word is quickly spreading to update your Flash install.

Windows 7

I’ve been running variants of Windows 7 for some time now. While it offers some new features, it’s biggest selling point is that it fixes the mistakes that came with Vista and offers users more stability. Windows 7 has been rock solid for some time now in my experience and that’s a good thing. If nothing else an OS should get out of the way when you are trying to do work and not cause headaches. Many of the problems that accompanied Vista have been relegated to the ash heap of geek history, and not a moment too soon. Like it or not, much of the computing industry is tied to the Windows/Intel cycle (Wintel) and there is a great dependence on things moving forward to keep customers buying. The years surrounding the Vista debacle hurt everyone associated. I’ve called those years a black hole before and I still believe that. I also believe that Intel shares as much of the blame as Microsoft does. Do you remember Vista Capable? There wasn’t much that was. At least until SP1. But by that time first impressions had become a legacy, if not a legend. It took some time, (perhaps too much time) but Microsoft cleaned house, righted the ship, and looks to be poised for a comeback with Windows 7.

Microsoft, I hope, has a few more tricks up its sleeve that we’ll see roll out sometime after Windows 7 debuts. Things have been quiet on the Live Mesh front and this could be a big game changer depending on when and how it rolls out. Microsoft suffered a great deal of pain in Vista by changing how drivers work. That pain then, looks like it will pay off now, as Windows 7 is following the same model. But then again, that contributes to some feelings that Windows 7 is just a Vista fix.

Snow Leopard

Apple promised and made big changes with Leopard and scaled expectations way back for Snow Leopard, promising only under the hood improvements. With Snow Leopard we got what was promised and not much more. Sure there is a new Doc/Expose combo that resembles Windows 7’s Taskbar functionality. There is also an improved Finder. And on my iMac things do run snappier. But it can be argued that the performance boost is due to a fresh install. It can also be argued that the work on the plumbing is correcting or adding things that should have been there from the beginning, or added in later. In fact, some are saying that Snow Leopard is nothing more than a Service Pack. Leo LaPorte has been calling it “Snow Job.”

Let’s not forget that after the release of Leopard it was viewed as the most buggy OS that Apple had launched yet. The howls of derision about that just never reached the volume that greeted Microsoft’s misfires. Snow Leopard also promised 64bit computing, but just like Microsoft’s venture into the realm of 64bit with Vista, users are still left waiting for drivers and software that actually work on that level. It is telling that to boot into 64bit mode you have to hold down the 6 and 4 keys in order to get there with Snow Leopard. All of that said, whether or not you think Snow Leopard is just a service pack or something more, it does appear in the early going to provide a better user experience.

Apple wins this round on one big score and that’s pricing. Unless you’re in the “Snow Leopard is a service pack” camp, $29 is a pretty good price point for what you get. A $49 Family pack price is also tough to beat. Microsoft not only couldn’t deliver on that level but insisted on keeping its ridiculous pricing strategy for different versions and upgrade paths. But that’s what happens when you let bean counters and marketing mavens instead of innovators run the show.

Still No New File System

But let’s look at the one big thing that both Apple and Microsoft promised that didn’t materialize in the OS chapters that began with Vista and Leopard. Both companies touted new file systems (Microsoft’s WinFS and Apple’s ZFS) that didn’t materialize in the final analysis. The promise was that we’d have revolutionary new file systems that would handle files better and make our computing life easier. But like the Chicago Cubs, I guess that may have to be put on indefinite hold. (I won’t say wait until next year because I think it will be longer than that. For Apple, Microsoft, and the Cubs.)

Apple has it infinitely easier than Microsoft. Because it is a closed shop when it comes to hardware and software innovation, it is easier for the folks in Cupertino to jettison the old and move forward. Microsoft has been stuck with so many legacy burdens that its task is almost impossible to get right. You can feel Microsoft wanting to move faster, but being held back by those who it depends on for revenue.   Apple just said bye-bye to the Powerbook days with Snow Leopard. Some say by upping the time table of the Snow Leopard release Apple left some users and developers scrambling with software that isn’t compatible. If Microsoft had done that, the howls would be deafening.

While some are seeing hints of the future in both Snow Leopard and Windows 7, I’m beginning to think that we are entering into a different kind of autumn. With the advent of cloud computing, and OS’s that boot directly into a browser, I think the sun might be setting on the big new OS innovation cycle.   I’m sure we’ll continue to see innovation, don’t get me wrong, I just believe that the bigger innovations are going to focus more on mobile and cloud scenarios in the future. Google will have some say in this whether or not it succeeds with the much ballyhooed Chrome OS.

The bottom line is this. Lots of computers and other software will get sold riding on the Snow Leopard and Windows 7 hype this fall and beyond. That’s good for the industry, but in some ways the industry is already looking in the rear view mirror at the days of the big OS as it plots its way forward. In the meantime, regardless of whether you use Windows or Snow Leopard, neither of which is a real World Series home run, it looks like we’ll have a bit more pleasant time in our computing lives in the near future.

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