Why Snow Leopard Matters

Snow Leopard

Just about as far back as I can remember, every new release of an operating system has brought new features, additional functionality, and, unfortunately, more bloat. This applies equally for OS X and Windows, and in recent years has become even more prominent.

Windows XP was bigger than both NT or 98, Vista was far bigger than XP, and Windows 7 is shaping up to be bigger still than Vista. Panther included 150 additional features, Tiger brought more than 200, and Leopard brought north of 300, as well as a visual refresh and more dependence on the 3D interface. We can see a steady trend of increasing size and complexity for operating systems.

But while Microsoft is continuing that trend with Windows 7, Apple has opted to do something different. The company has taken a step back and started building a platform that is going to carry their operating system for the next 5-10 years. Snow Leopard includes “no new features.” Apple has decidedly spent the past year refining Leopard, stripping out old code, and building frameworks for developers to take advantage of the multicore, multiprocessor machines that it’s building.

But let’s be clear: To say that Snow Leopard includes absolutely no new features is kind of misleading. Snow Leopard does include new features, including some tweaks to the Dock and Exposé, a new Finder, and exchange support for iCal, Mail and Address Book.

That’s all well and good, but the real new features, the ones that matter, are all for developers. 64bit support, Grand Central Dispatch (GCD), and OpenCL will make applications developed for Snow Leopard faster, and able to take advantage of the power and capabilities of the new machines. Enabling 64-bit applications means that apps can now address more than 4GB of RAM (theoretically up to 16 billion gigabytes). The new GCD frameworks make it easier for developers to write code that executes on all of the available CPU cores simultaneously. OpenCL enables developers to tap the unused power of the graphics cards to speed up their applications even more. Snow Leopard is more than an OS, it’s a platform built for developers.

And yes, Apple is dropping support for PowerPC. I’m assuming that stripping out the Rosetta code and the PowerPC code from universal binaries is one of the ways Apple has saved so much disk space in Snow Leopard when compared to Leopard. Although, as awesome technologies go, Rosetta certainly ranked high.

To get Snow Leopard to as many Macs as possible, Apple is going to try very hard to push how much faster all the built-in applications run. However, the real benefit from Snow Leopard might not be seen until the developers catch up. Large, professional applications like Apple’s own Final Cut Pro and Adobe’s Photoshop might see the biggest benefit from taking advantage of the new technologies.

What Apple has done is shift away from adding more and more code and features into OS X, and instead concentrate on making what’s in Leopard lighter, faster, and stronger. It’s the right thing to do. Snow Leopard might be a hard sell at first, which I’m assuming is why it’s competitively priced at $29, but roughly a year after it comes out, when more developers have had a chance to build on it, I believe we are going to see a line drawn in the sand. There will be the apps before Snow Leopard, and then there will be everything that comes after it. Leopard is a transitional OS, the prequel, and Snow Leopard is the main event.


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