Wednesday, March 25, 2009

10.6 is the new OS 8

As I wrote earlier, the most important Apple product in the near-term pipeline is OS X 10.6. Speculation is ramping up about the look and feel, capabilities, and changes coming soon.

The release of Mac and iPhone variants of the OS is set for WWDC in June, according to the best guesses of Mac Rumors and Apple Insider. I see no reason to doubt that, though Apple is now late in announcing the exact date of the developer conference. It may be that progress is uneven, and the company is waiting to set a deadline (only speculation.) OS development is so complicated that a delay of a few months is almost assured. The "polish and enhance" mandate of Snow Leopard might make it especially susceptible to long slogs through legacy code, though the predicted end of PowerPC support lifts the burden of targeting that platform. All told, Apple may be planning on a WWDC preview, with a month-or-so-later ship date.

The last major OS revision and Mac platform shift was, of course, OS X. The move to the UNIX-based OS is without a doubt the most significant change in Mac software history. Snow Leopard is no such leap. The most similar past update to the Mac is the shipped Mac OS 8 (not Copland of course.) When that revision arrived, it represented a significant rework of the internals of System 7, came clad in a new but not-unfamiliar UI, and ended support for 680x0 (non PowerPC) Macs.

OS 8 was probably the relative peak of the original Macintosh, as XP compared far more favorably to OS 9 than Windows ME did to the earlier Mac OS. The same may hold true for Snow Leopard, shipped at the tail end of a disastrous Windows release cycle, with future OS X releases coming after Windows 7 (in theory.) Indeed, OS X has been shipping for almost ten years now. Is it becoming as dated as its predecessor? What comes after OS X?

Another possibility is that this revamp represents the start of a new, even better era, as MultiFinder and System 6.0.8 (or 7.something, when that OS finally worked) were the start of a sort-of second generation of the Mac. In this scenario, the OS is "rebuilt in flight", giving Apple a few more years to plan the next complete overhaul, but possibly leading the OS into a spiral of senescence from which it is unable to recover. Apple pushed Classic about as far as possible, and it would be best to avoid being in that risky and desperate a position.

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