WWDC Preview: What we know, what we expect with Snow Leopard

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We're just a weekend away from the start of Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), where two items are expected to dominate the proceedings—iPhone OS 3.0 and Mac OS X 10.6 (also known as Snow Leopard). Dan Moren covered what we know and think about iPhone OS 3.0, so now it’s Snow Leopard’s turn on the stage.

What we know

Snow Leopard was first previewed at last year’s WWDC. What made that preview unique was that very few new features were shown—and Apple admitted that new features weren’t the focus of Snow Leopard. Instead, Snow Leopard centers around the performance of OS X, quality improvements, and setting the stage for future OS X innovation. Bertrand Serlet, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering, said at the time, “In our continued effort to deliver the best user experience, we hit the pause button on new features to focus on perfecting the world’s most advanced operating system.” This means that Snow Leopard will be unlike any other major OS X release in that features won’t be the primary selling point. That doesn’t mean, of course, absolutely no new features.

As of now, however, Apple has disclosed only five new features for Snow Leopard, two of which will be immediately apparent to the typical user. First, Snow Leopard gains native support for Microsoft Exchange 2007 in Mail, Address Book, and iCal. So users with employers who rely on Exchange will, for the first time, get full out-of-the-box compatibility for their e-mail, contacts, and calendars.

The second end-user features relates to QuickTime. In Snow Leopard, QuickTime gets a major revision and a nifty new name to match: QuickTime X. Beyond the new moniker, however, we know very little about what’s new in QuickTime X. Apple states only that QuickTime X is “a streamlined, next-generation platform that advances modern media and Internet standards. QuickTime X features optimized support for modern codecs and more efficient media playback, making it ideal for any application that needs to play media content.”

As for the other three new features Apple has revealed, most end users won’t immediately see them. Still, they’re very important for the future of the operating system. First, Snow Leopard uses its 64-bit architecture to extend the software limit on system memory up to 16 terabytes. To put that in perspective, that’s 500 times more RAM than today’s 32GB limit. And—unless new Mac Pros come out with 4,000 RAM slots—it’s a purely theoretical limit. The largest RAM chips currently available are 4GB in size, meaning that 32GB will remain the practical memory limit (in an eight-slot Mac Pro) until larger RAM chips are released. But when such chips are available, Snow Leopard will be ready for them.

The second new low-level feature is Grand Central, a set of technologies built into Snow Leopard that help the system—and programs written to use these new technologies—take better advantage of the multi-core processors in every shipping Mac. In the short run, this should mean that OS X and its bundled applications will make better use of those multiple cores. In the long run, as developers rewrite their code to take advantage of Grand Central, these programs should also become much more multi-processor friendly. Overall, this should mean a notable increase in performance as more of the computing power in your Mac is put to use on a regular basis.

The third and final low-level feature is support for Open Computing Language (OpenCL). In a nutshell, OpenCL will allow developers to tap the computing power locked up in your Mac’s 3D graphics card. These graphics cards are almost like powerful computers in their own right, and as of now, their power is only put to use when you’re using their 3D capabilities. OpenCL is designed to change all that, by letting developers harness the power of the graphics card for certain non-graphical operations. Developers will have to modify their code to take advantage of OpenCL, but when they do, users should see speed increases in those modified applications.

The Snow Leopard features that we know about are really designed to set the stage for the next great feature-rich Mac OS X version. In particular, Grand Central, OpenCL, and support for terabytes of RAM will allow for some interesting new applications and system features in the future.

What we don’t know

Heading into Monday’s keynote, there are some questions about Snow Leopard that we can’t yet answer. First, when will it be available? At last year’s WWDC, Apple announced Snow Leopard would ship “in about a year,” but the company hasn’t provided an actual release date as of yet.

So will it be released next week?

I don’t think so, based solely on a quote in Apple’s WWDC 2009 press release. Bertrand Serlet states that “we will be giving our developers a final Developer Preview release so they can see the incredible progress we’ve made on Snow Leopard and work with us as we move toward its final release.” I expect we’ll see Snow Leopard by the end of July or August, just using Apple’s “about a year” statement as my guideline.

Another big question is which CPUs will support Snow Leopard—there’s no mention of PowerPC on the Snow Leopard page, so is this going to be an Intel-only operating system? I’m inclined to think it may be, because the cost of developing features like Grand Central and OpenCL for the dead PowerPC architecture seems excessive to me. This will, of course, leave out a big chunk of current Mac users from the latest OS X release, but at some point, Apple needs to leave the old architecture behind.

Are there additional features that haven’t been disclosed? Although the focus of this release is on stability and core changes, it’s hard to believe that there aren’t at least a few more new features beyond the five that have been announced—with thousands of talented developers at Apple, I have a sense that we’ll see at least a handful of additional new features in Snow Leopard.

Closely related to the “more features” question is the issue of pricing. Prior major OS X releases—with the exception of OS X 10.1—have been priced at $129, and all contained hundreds of new features. Snow Leopard, on the other hand, has very little in the way of compelling new end-user features; not many people will be willing to pay $129 for a new version of QuickTime, Exchange support, and some core technologies that will prove most useful in the future.

Even if there are some additional unannounced features, I don’t think Apple can sell Snow Leopard for $129. To be honest, I see it as a hard sell at any price point, especially when considered against prior OS X releases. So I’m going to go way out on a limb and predict that Apple may either give away Snow Leopard to existing OS X users, or charge a token amount ($20) for it. It’s in Apple’s best interests to get as many users as possible on Snow Leopard—it figures to be a more stable OS that runs faster, and has core technologies that many developers will take advantage of. By giving it away, or pricing it very low, Apple will encourage everyone to upgrade now rather than wait for the next “feature laden” OS X release.

I expect that we’ll probably get answers to all of these questions in Monday’s keynote. Snow Leopard will be given a firm release date and price, we’ll see a demo of additional features, and we’ll find out if Snow Leopard will support both PowerPC and Intel CPUs. I can’t wait; from what we’ve seen thus far, Snow Leopard looks like an excellent next step for OS X, even if it’s not the typical feature-laden release.

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