Blog Post

Debunking the “Snow Leopard is a Service Pack” Myth


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.” 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 (s aapl) 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 (s msft) 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 (s intc) 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.

35 Responses to “Debunking the “Snow Leopard is a Service Pack” Myth”

  1. The crux of the matter is that users see no real improvement and what is there looks like a minor dot update. Apple should have delayed the release of Snow Leopard until they could bundle it with a rewritten iLife so they can see the advantage of OpenCL and GCD.

  2. Mark,
    Yes, I do read your articles, and I think you are usually fair and objective. This one seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that some people had not fallen in line behind the whatever-Apple-gives-us-is-exactly-what-we-wanted-and-needed-all-along mantra. You did, in fact, say exactly what was and was not service pack material. My apologies.
    I’m not buying the name thing, though. *Every* OS builds on what came before – even if they start from scratch with the code. This one seems to me like “Leopard, only more so”.

    Dj Ruiner,
    I did not see anything but minor speed increases, and they were far from across the board. Now you may call what I do “dicking around”, and tell me I am not a power user (even though you have absolutely no idea what I do or how I use my computer), but my livelihood depends on what I do on my Mac every day. Your experience, your hardware, and your computer habits are obviously different. As are our opinions on the matter. That doesn’t make me an idiot any more than your calling me names makes you right.
    Oh, and *not* installing a bunch of legacy and printer drivers is an indication that this is an all new OS? Really?

  3. When you’re product is already providing what people want and need to do their job there’s no need for drastic measures to make them happy. On the other hand, when you own a product like Windows, whose hype continues to overcommit and under deliver you need to first nuke the previous codebase and then start searching for new ways to market the pile of crap that it is in hopes that consumers and businesses won’t stop the gravy train that they are on. As a long time Windows user (and developer — though it pains me to admit), Microsoft is doomed unless they start producing a product that’s as stable, responsive and secure as Mac OS X. They will then be in a position to release features (incremental or not) that add value to their user base and keep their product strong.

    It’s always a good day when you don’t see an hour glass, blue screen and can actually perform multiple tasks simultaneously without any perceptible resource drain on your system. Microsoft had better hope that Apple doesn’t release a version of their OS that doesn’t rely on their hardware. The only reason MS can compete now is because the masses have been mesmerized by the MS Marketing engine and are afraid to spend the extra money on Mac hardware. Once the cats out of the bad then it’s game over for MS.

  4. I still don’t get why people think bug fixes and performance improvements don’t matter or don’t have value. Performance and stability matter more to me day-to-day as a computer user than bells and whistles do. If my Mac will now go longer without freezing or apps crashing and allow me to run apps more smoothly, that’s a huge benefit, well worth $29 to me.

    And from testing Vista RC7 it feels to me exactly like Vista, except it actually works reliably, so MS are doing the same thing as Apple.

    As far as the 64-bit transition goes, I think Apple has made the correct decision in softening the switch. Give the 64 bit option to people who want it now, allow time for apps to make the transition, don’t force me to turn around and buy new hardware because of unsupported drivers like MS did with Vista. And sorry pre-intel Mac users but there has to be a cutoff somewhere — at least yours was clear, not “Run a wizard and see if your Mac will work with Snow Leopard” which is what would-be Vista users got – and also Leopard not being a major feature release gives older Mac users time to think about upgrading before the next OS feature release.

    The decisions on how to manage all these issues are judgement calls, and I think Apple has done a decent job managing them. Now I just hope Snow Leopard delivers what it claims.

  5. The problem is that people are trying to apply the language of the ‘Windows’ model of OS development to OS X– and that comparison is apples and oranges, no pun intended.

    In the Windows development model, you are promised vast improvements at some unspecified point in the future– and in the meantime, you get service packs. And when actual major releases come out, it’s hard to distinguish between ‘busy work’ changes that don’t actually improve anything, and actual, no-kidding improvements. The vast improvements are deferred to an unspecified later date.

    In OS X, you get frequent maintenance ‘minor digit’ releases every few months. And every year or two you get major digit releases that are actual applications of the gold standard for long-term engineering progress, i.e., ‘continuous improvement’. As I said, apples and oranges.

    • Mark Crump

      I usually consider the 10.x.x releases “service packs”

      As you said, it’s hard to compare the two models. Microsoft releases updates on what.. the first or second Tuesday of every month, and a service pack every couple of years. Apple releases .x updates about once a quarter or so.

  6. Between this article and the Munster thing, TAB is sounding more like just another fanboy site every day. It is a bit disappointing.

    It is not a ‘myth’ that Snow Leopard *feels* like a service pack. There are, as advertised, 0 new features. You don’t get 64-bit goodness without booting into it with a special key combination (and you don’t get it at all on some Macs in any case). Open CL and Grand Central don’t do anything for me in any practical sense – and they won’t – until software is written to exploit their features.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am pleased that the Services menu has been enhanced, and I am just tickled pink that Dock Exposé is here – now we Apple users can do what Windows users have been doing for about ten years in terms of navigating between open windows. Woo hoo.

    Maybe it is more than a service pack. But not much more. Apple even acknowledges that with the 29 dollar price tag. They didn’t dare charge the usual $129 dollars we would expect for a new OS. Heck, they were so tentative about it, they couldn’t even take “Leopard” out of the name.

    Not a service pack? Ok, fine. But Snow Leopard isn’t exactly a brand-new OS, either.

    Please try to be a little more objective. I didn’t come here for a fanboy fix. I came here because, before this week anyway, I knew I could count on The Apple Blog for an honest appraisal of all things Apple.

    • You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

      I remember people complaining about Apple putting more new marketing-friendly shiny features into the OS with each new release, instead of shoring up the code base and making architectural enhancements. People complained about performance and they complained about UI inconsistencies, and they complained about the Finder.

      And now that Apple has addressed all of those issues (or at least made significant progress on all of those fronts), they’re complaining about the lack of any marketing-friendly shiny features.

      Unbelievable. I can think of a lot of criticisms and complaints about Apple and its relationship with its developers (the iPhone App Store, etc.), but the “Service Pack” is one of those idiotic memes like “the Mac is a toy”.

      If a glut of new marketing-friendly shiny features and more bloat is what you really want in an operating system instead of a future payoff of faster performance and enhanced capabilities of apps on the Mac, by all means, please switch back to Vista/Windows 7.

    • Mark Crump

      If you read through most of my stuff, you’ll find I’ve been *very* objective, and have no fear of calling Apple out.

      I was pretty clear in at the beginning: there *are* features I think would make this a “service pack.”

      They kept Leopard in the name because it builds on what Leopard was — and you can argue it’s what Leopard should have been.

      In terms of 0 new features, you get the Dock expose stuff, Exchange Support (granted, not helpful if you’re not an Exchange 2007 user).

      I’ve got an article coming out soon that delves a little deeper into the new Services menu. To me, that’s a feature worth the $29. I love Automator, and in Snow Leopard it rocks.

      I agree Apple would have taken it on the chin if they charged $129 for it, but that’s a bit of a straw man. They want users to upgrade, and without the 300 new features (and that number is stretching things) they couldn’t charge $129, and they didn’t.

      Call me old, or call me fanboi, but I don’t really look for 300 new features every two years. I’ll take Snow Leopard for what it is.

      Now, if two years from now, they release a “better Snow Leopard” I’ll be ripped.

      I thought I was clear on the areas we’re in improvement: a lot of what’s great about Snow Leopard won’t be apparent to users until apps take full advantage of GC and Open CL.

    • No service pack Microsoft has ever released was intended to improve the feature set dramatically, only to fix outstanding bugs and issues. You say it is not a service pack, then treat many of its new features as service pack features. This site should release stories less frequently instead of making up stories and eschewing research.

    • How does it FEEL like a service pack? If you’re a power user it FEELS like a HUGE HUGE HUGE upgrade. In Logic before this my mbp with 4gb would CRAWL when Im in the 12-16 track range. Now im blasting 25 tracks with full fx while multitasking having photoshop open. Grand central has greatly improved multithreading which is btw, what makes use of multiple cores. This changes the entire experience. If you’re just dicking around with safari and iCal of course you won’t notice a difference. Or if your just a photo/video/audio hobbyist.

      I think this is exactly what needed to be done. You really need more BS features after Leopard? I mean REALLY? This is the path that made windows so bad is just adding more code and making it sluggish and now here they are with Vista. Apple did a big move and instead of adding bloat and BS they rewrote alot of the core parts of the OS and actually stripped space. What OS upgrade from MS are you going to get that gives you 15gb back? COME ON. What software update, what service pack gives you space like that back?

      Not much more than a service pack? You’re an idiot.

  7. I am in IT almost all my life (I am 38 now) and can tell you that the people proclaiming Snow Leopard a SP are either s….d or paied to say so.
    And the reasons are very well explained in the article.

    I would rather say that W7 are a SP to Vista as they do not bring almost anything new, let alone core components and architecture.

  8. I think “service pack” is a loaded term because it presumes there were bugs to be fixed, but there’s definitely a Windows precedent for radical changes to the OS without an upcharge. If you installed Windows 95 at launch and kept it up to date until the release of Windows 98, it would not just be less buggy, but a vastly improved experience with Explorer and its friend IE4, the best browser available at the time.

  9. As an Apple developer, I’m extremely excited with Grand Central, 64-bit and OpenCL. I have yet to see any service pack or dot release that does so much. Obviously, most users will never know about these technologies, so Apple has to slap on some front-end features for marketing propaganda.

    You can have a new OS with some significant under-the-hood features for developers to play with right now or another 2 years for 300+ features to creep in along with these less visible changes. At the $29 admission fee, everyone got what they ask for.

  10. Ever since Gina Trapani’s screed about why she doesn’t like the iPhone, I can’t anything she says seriously anymore and just tune her out. Not eceryone needs one, but good lord the thing is freakin’ amazing.

  11. This debate just show how IT is changed during the decades.
    Once upon a time the OS vendor was supposed to provide just the bare metal, not fancy feature packed user facing apps.

    Nowadays, Apple ships an OS with a rewritten 64bit kernel and file manager, new APIs, new compilers, C language extensions, while dropping support for older architectures… and users wonder if it’s a minor release because it looks more or less the same.

  12. “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?

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.)

    • 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…

  18. 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.

    • Mark Crump

      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.

    • 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.”