For a while the blogosphere has been running its mouth off about how “Snow Leopard is just a service pack Apple has the gall to charge for.” TechRadar.com reports, “Despite all of the necessary ‘under the hood’ improvements in Snow Leopard, this release has the inescapable […]


For a while the blogosphere has been running its mouth off about how “Snow Leopard is just a service pack Apple has the gall to charge for.”

TechRadar.com reports, “Despite all of the necessary ‘under the hood’ improvements in Snow Leopard, this release has the inescapable air of a service pack about it.”

Gina Trapani says, “Even though David Pogue says this is an ‘uninformed wisecrack,’ I’m still calling Snow Leopard a service pack. ‘Snow Leopard Fixes Leopard’s Bugs’ is not the headline you’re going to see in the NYT or WSJ.”

Merlin Mann snarks in this tweet, “Wow. 10.6. If some of these ‘refinements’ were any more ‘subtle,’ they’d seem kinda like ‘bug fixes.’”

To a certain degree I can see their point. We’re used to Steve Jobs getting on stage and touting an OS upgrade with 300+ new features as well as moving any purchaser to the front of a liver transplant line. Frankly, the parts of Snow Leopard the average user would notice are incredibly pedestrian. Boring, even. Apple priced it a boring, $29 price point to make it a no-brainer.

I’m going to go through some of the marquee features and break them down into areas I think would be in a service pack, could be in a service pack, and are too invasive for a service pack.

Service Pack Candidates

Just to show some partisanship, I’m going to reach across the aisle and tell you the features I think Apple could have released in a 10.5.x update: the new Exposé and Stacks, signal-strength meters in Airport, quicker Time Machine, QuickTime X, hi-res iChat and improved disk eject. All of these could have been added into the eight sub-releases of Leopard. Maybe there’s something to the theory that Apple held them back just to have something to sell users on. Maybe there were two gunmen in Dallas, too.

Borderline Candidates

Built-in support for Exchange: I know Microsoft dot-released the new Exchange features into Entourage, but I’m labeling this one borderline because I’m not sure the underlying code in Mail, Address Book and iCal would have been feasible for a .x release.

Rewrite of Finder: For the same reasons above, I’m not sure the Finder rewrite could have been done in a service pack. I’m erring on the side of caution and theorizing as a central part of the OS, it needed to be done in an upgrade.

Not Service Pack-able

The 64 bit transition, Grand Central Dispatch, and Open CL: I believe these could not have been done as a service pack. They are too central, too invasive, and are also key parts that require the Intel chipset to work. Since Snow Leopard will not run on Power PC machines, and I doubt Apple would have ever released a dot upgrade to Leopard that didn’t work on both platforms, to me these are the features that required an upgrade.

The perception problem is while these are likely to be the most important parts of Snow Leopard long term (once developers upgrade their apps), to the average user they are seriously unsexy because we don’t see them.

I think Bertrand Serlet’s comment at WWDC ’90 “[Snow Leopard] is a better Leopard” has been misinterpreted as Apple’s way of saying Leopard had some issues and needed some serious love. I don’t read it that way. I think Apple is fairly happy with how Leopard turned out — at least once it got a lot of the Spaces issues worked out. I do agree that Leopard was released too early, but by 10.5.5 or so it was in fine form.

With Snow Leopard, Apple wanted to refine some of the user interface elements while building an underlying architecture that will continue to take advantage of Core Duo 2 (and better) chipsets and decent video chipsets. When you look at the enhancements Open CL can give, it’s no mystery why Apple got away from the crappy integrated chips in even the low-end products — it wanted all Apple products to be able to take advantage of it.

People claiming that Snow Leopard is just a service pack need to look past the handful of interface improvements and focus on the underlying architecture. It may not be a sexy upgrade, but I think it will be a very important upgrade as apps are upgraded to take advantage of its features.

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  1. A ton of features that even you agree could have been in a service pack and three that couldn’t? Frankly that’s not the strongest of arguments.

    Debunking seems like an awfully strong word when truthfully you’re just stating your opinion with no real facts to back it up.

    1. The three parts that couldn’t are major underwriting of the OS code.

      Also, I heard Andy Ihnatko mention on today’s MacBreak Weekly that things like the “improved eject” actually required major rewrites of the finder.

      I don’t think the major parts of SL are the “borderline” features. Also, what I forgot to mention is the newly revamped Services menu. As an Automator lover, that one is huge and again, couldn’t have been in a .x release.

      Also, given the incompatibility issues while developers upgrade their apps (or, don’t as in Adobe’s case), Apple wanted to make sure users went into the Snow Leopard upgrade consciously and didn’t break something day 0 via Software Update.

    2. Like there’ll ever be some agreed-upon definition of a Service Pack as opposed to a release.

      User features can figure into the definition, but certainly the amounts of shear development work must have something to do with it as well.

      In Snow Leopard the Finder was completely re-written with the Cocoa frameworks. That it looks like a carbon copy (heh, pun intended) of the Leopard Finder is a _compliment_ to Apple’s developers. You don’t deduct points for that.

      In Leopard there was one (1) 64-bit app. Chess. In Snow Leopard all but three of them are 64-bit! This is huge.

      Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL didn’t write themselves, or come from a kit.

      The amount of resources and man-hours that went into this release is certainly on par with any other.

      My point is that you’d have to be ignorant of developer effort, or trolling, to drag out Microsoft’s talking points Service Pack meme to characterize Snow Leopard.

      You can certainly argue with the STRATEGY of a new release with so few new user features, but that’s not the same as claiming it isn’t a major release. It is. Period.

      I think Microsoft is just bitter about it myself, and said so elsewhere:

      “Microsoft displays a certain disdain for what Apple accomplished with Snow Leopard. Their supporters have whined about it for months, and the heat is really on now. As if Microsoft wouldn’t love to refine Windows under the hood. As if Windows doesn’t NEED refinement under the hood! Get rid of the antiquated registry, get a handle on DLL issues we’ve had for years, remove the bloat, add better security, and don’t require separate versions for 32- and 64-bit. But they can’t. They don’t have the vision, they don’t have the priority, and they don’t have the desire to make things better for their user base.”

  2. It’s not about the possibility if a certain feature could or couldn’t have been included in a Mac OS 10.x.y release, but about the overall effect on the user.

    Average user won’t tell the difference unless he’s an Exchange guy. Sure, it’s faster. Sure, it’s less buggy. But we’ve gotten used to that and now it’s a just up a notch.

    Don’t get me wrong – I prefer refinements to new features (even though I LOVE the Exchange support), but you could _call_ Snow Leopard a service pack, because to most users, that’s what it looks like. (And no, they don’t really care about 64bit, grand central or OpenCL.)

    1. A dot release or “MS Service Pack” equivalent is meant to be applied by all users, to improve use or fix bugs, without breaking existing applications or interrupting the community’s experience.

      A new release, regardless of how visibly changed it may seem, should make the user thing twice about installing, check for incompatibilities, etc. A new release WILL break things, regardless of how visibly changed it may be…

  3. Jeffrey L Miller Tuesday, September 1, 2009

    Of course pulling PowerPC support could never have been a point release for Leopard along with some of the other changes that broke compatibility. Sure some of the changes could have been point releases, but that is true of all OS releases.

  4. I don’t know why anyone is complaining. $29 it doesn’t matter what they did.

    Hell, you can’t buy replacement apple earphones for $29.

  5. You can add that if Snow Leopard is a mere ‘service pack,’ why are developers having to scramble to make their applications Snow Leopard compatible. That hints, as you note, at the large number of under-the-hood improvements.

    A good analogy would be to go back to the early days of stock car racing when the cars being raced really did come off Detroit’s assembly lines, differing only in the fact that the race car had a much more powerful engine could move perhaps twice as fast.

    Since almost no applications have been rewritten to take advantage of Grand Central, we’ve yet to see what the new engine under our Macs’ hood can do. But this is not a mere tune up (service pack). This is a new engine and in computer lingo that’s a full digit upgrade to the OS.

  6. To me, Snow Leopard is a great update: I know I’m ready for the future, and get a taste of it. I can look forward to many new applications making use of it.

    It couldn’t be a “Service Pack” because you can’t release a point version of an operating system just for Intel Macs, not for PowerPC. By playing it down a bit they managed to be not so hard on all those left-over PowerPC users like my girlfriend. To her, SL would have been nice, but missing on it is not painful like missing on Leopard (Time Machine, Spaces, etc.) would have been.

  7. you might like this story i found on the ever-feline names apple gives its operating systems. worth a read for mac lovers: http://onthebutton.wordpress.com/2009/08/26/apple-snow-leopard/

  8. I’ll tell you why Snow Leopard is Not a service pack:
    software update could never install it properly.

  9. All while Microsoft is selling Windows 7 at FULL price after Vista failed as it completely sucked. So is Windows 7 an EXPENSIVE service pack? Probably!

    How many times were we supposed to pay AGAIN for Microsoft Office when many times it offered little in new useful features.

  10. “My point is that you’d have to be ignorant of developer effort, or trolling, to drag out Microsoft’s talking points Service Pack meme to characterize Snow Leopard.”

    @ Tom

    Where did MS call it a service pack? That meme seems to be coming from Apple users and usual advocates. But it’s easier to blame it on MS than acknowledge that some users legitimately feel that way, right?

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