Does Apple have an OS X update up its sleeve at WWDC?

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It’s a widely accepted notion by now that Monday’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote is going to be iPhone-centric. Whether that entails more on the iPhone 2.0 software, the forthcoming App Store for native iPhone apps, or an entirely new iPhone itself is anybody’s guess. But it’s not exactly going out on a limb to say that Steve Jobs is going to spend a lot of time detailing Apple’s iPhone plans to developers on Monday.

But Mac OS X could also be in the mix—specifically, a new version of the operating system. That’s the rumor currently being floated—at The Unofficial Apple Weblog and Infinite Loop anyway—that developers will also receive an early seed of OS X 10.6, which is rumored to be code-named Snow Leopard.

With the caveat that examining any rumor of this nature first requires a visit to the folks at Morton to restock your grains-of-salt supply, the thinking goes that 10.6 will be an Intel-only release, that it will have no major new features, and that it will be focused on improvements in speed, stability, and security. And oh yeah, OS X 10.6 will be released as soon as January 2009’s Macworld Expo, a mere 15 months or so after the release of OS X 10.5.

So how to react to such possibilities? As a consumer, my first thought was along the lines of “so tell me why I should buy this thing? It wouldn’t have any new features at all, and it wouldn’t run on my PowerBook G4?” Then it dawned on me…maybe I wouldn’t have to buy it.

Instead, what if Apple distributes 10.6—assuming there is a 10.6, as described above—as a free update to anyone running 10.5 on an Intel-powered Mac? Sure, we’ve become trained to expect a $129 upgrade fee with each major change in OS X’s version number. But this wouldn’t mark the first time the company released a major OS X update for free: OS X 10.1 was a free update, too, for all those who dove in with 10.0.

So why would Apple give this rumored update away for free? If there really aren’t any compelling new core OS-level features, I don’t think Apple would find a lot of buyers willing to pony up $129 for 10.6, even if it were faster. Although Leopard may have some issues, a compelling sense of overall slowness is not one of those issues. And clearly nobody is going to pay $129 for improved stability and security—again, OS X 10.5 doesn’t have stability issues for most users, and the platform is still yet to be affected by any large-scale virus or malware infestations. So if Apple can’t make any money on this—in fact, it will cost the company money—then why do it?

The answer, to me anyway, is resources. Right now, Apple has to extend its OS X efforts to include hardware that isn’t getting any younger—in addition to supporting new Intel machines, it also must make sure to support PowerPC processors. If Apple were to continue on its same dual-platform approach for a theoretical OS X 10.6 update, this would mean another 12 to 18 months of work supporting both platforms. (Remember, Leopard finally made it to market two-and-a-half years after Tiger.) But if the company instead released an Intel-only OS X 10.6 update very soon, that would clearly tell everyone that the next major update to OS X would also be Intel-only. So the company can then work on a full-blown Intel-only OS X 10.7 release, making OS X 10.5 the last release for PowerPC Macs.

By not including any low-level changes in OS X 10.6, Apple also would appease its developers, some of whom are just now finishing their migration to OS X 10.5—the developers would probably not be very happy next week if they were told that their code needed to be updated yet again. Similarly, PowerPC users wouldn’t instantly be left out in the cold—they probably wouldn’t soon face “10.6 only” releases from their favorite vendors under this scenario, as anything that ran on 10.6 would also run on 10.5. By delivering a feature-limited free update for all Intel Mac users in the near term, Apple would free up its resources, developers wouldn’t be forced to revise their code again, and OS X 10.5 PowerPC users wouldn’t need to fear a short-term abandonment.

Another advantage to this strategy is that by making OS X faster, more stable, and more secure, it becomes a better OS everywhere it’s being used—whether that be on a Mac, on an iPhone or iPod touch, or on some yet-unknown Apple hardware device that we’ll all be craving in the near future. There is no bad news to improving the OS in these ways, except for those (if the rumors are true) using PowerPC machines. Thankfully, OS X 10.5 is a very solid OS, and it will continue to work fine on PowerPC Macs.

Those who use PowerPC Macs, though, would be put on notice with the release of an Intel-only OS update: the future roadmap for OS X is Intel-only, and if they want to move beyond OS X 10.5, they’ll need to upgrade to an Intel-powered Mac. And just when would the next major OS X version—OS X 10.7 in my scenario—be released? Ignoring the theoretical OS X 10.6, which wouldn’t be a major update, I would expect to see OS X 10.7 sometime between April and October of 2009, or perhaps January of 2010 at Macworld Expo. That would make it 18 to 27 months since release of OS X 10.5, which is in line with the company’s historical timeline for major OS X updates. It would also be around three to four years since the release of the last PowerPC machine, which is a relatively long time in the world of computing. Those who wished to continue using their PowerPC machines could do so, of course—just not on anything newer than OS X 10.5.

So how about it? Do you think a free Intel-only 10.6 update is in the works? We’ll know more on Monday, of course, but until then, let the debate begin.

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