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Tuesday, June 09, 2009, 02:10 pm PT (05:10 pm ET)

Snow Leopard gets richer, thinner, cheaper than Windows 7

After trying to beat back the Mac's increasing encroachment into the PC world with ads focused on price, Microsoft's club has been picked up by Apple to give Windows 7 an embarrassing pummeling in terms of price.

Explaining that the company wanted as many Mac OS X Leopard users as possible to upgrade to the new Snow Leopard, Apple's senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing Phil Schiller announced a $29 upgrade price for Snow Leopard and a $49 family pack upgrade. Users who buy a new Mac between the June 8 announcement and the release of Snow Leopard can get a copy of the new software for even cheaper, just $9.95 to cover shipping and handling.

Apple hasn't explicitly stated it yet, but it appears that the retail box of Snow Leopard could still be priced at $129, although it's hard to imagine who would need to buy the new operating system at retail rather than as an upgrade, particularly since it requires a relatively modern Mac to run, mostly machines that either shipped with Leopard or have already upgraded to use it.

While Apple is slashing the cost of Snow Leopard dramatically even as demand and interest in the Mac platform is on an upswing, Microsoft did just the opposite with the release of Windows Vista, bumping up the cost of upgrades and retail copies and introducing new pricing tiers to artificially restrict features to pricier editions even as expansion of the PC market began to plateau and as the emergence of cheap new netbooks began to question the need for an expensive operating system.

Microsoft has since backtracked on Vista's pricing, and for the first time ever, the company has essentially given away a year's worth of Windows licensing by pumping out free copies of its Windows 7 "release candidate" software on the market to stem the tide of Windows defectors and entice disgruntled Vista users back with a real life, wide scale Mojave Experiment. Of course, it's only free until next summer, at which point users' Windows 7 PCs will stop working until payments are made. In any other industry, this strategy might be characterized as product dumping, but in the PC industry that Microsoft has ruled as a de-facto corporate government for the last twenty years, it's just business as usual.

Leopard vs Vista

Apple's decision to offer Snow Leopard to Mac users on the cheap contrasts with Microsoft's first-one-is-free tactic for Windows in that Apple is essentially rewarding its loyal customers, while Microsoft is working to win back the interest of jilted PC users after several bouts of abuse: security nightmares, price tag beatings, broken promises on features, and poor performance.

Unlike the very popular Leopard, many Windows PC users who ended up with Vista demanded to get a Windows XP downgrade. PC makers felt such a backlash in customer demand that they pressured Microsoft to at least bundle a Windows XP installer disc with new systems, allowing them to continue to sell PCs while Microsoft could continue to at least count the sales' bundled Vista licenses to claim some success for the company's most underwhelming Windows release in recent memory.

Vista was soundly rejected even by corporate users, who have historically acted as a strong barrier to any new competition against Windows in the PC operating system market by resisting alternative software in lockstep. Microsoft's monopoly essentially attacked itself as if an autoimmune disorder; the company has worked so hard to prevent new competitors from entering the market that it now can't offer anything really new itself either.

Bertrand Serlet, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, was quick to grab at that loose string on Microsoft's sweater and tugged hard to unravel it at WWDC, noting that while Vista attempted to compare itself with Mac OS X, it carried forward the same old technologies that had hurt the Windows experience since the 90s, specifically noting problem-plagued DLLs, the configuration mess of the Windows registry, the archaic notion of expecting users to defragment their disks manually, and the annoyance of Vista's UAC popups.

"What a big hole Microsoft has dug," Serlet said. "They're trying to get out of it with Windows 7; it's the same old technology as Vista. Fundamentally, it's just another version of Vista."

From the beginning, Apple has characterized Snow Leopard as a refinement release, initially suggesting it would have no new features apart from support for Microsoft Exchange. While there are a lot of refinements and some new features, the company has stuck to making Snow Leopard primarily a unifying reference release rather than a splashy collection of new consumer features as Leopard was. "We love Leopard, so we decided to build upon Leopard," Serlet said. "We want to build a better Leopard."

Snow Leopard vs Seven

Some pundits were confused by Serlet's comments, thinking that there was some hypocrisy in his nailing Windows 7 for being another Vista when Snow Leopard is itself clearly another Leopard. But the point Serlet made wasn't that Microsoft was failing to make great enough leaps in its marketing. It's that Microsoft was really only focusing on making great leaps with its marketing. While Snow Leopard jettisons a variety of legacy technologies and ushers in significant new ones, including Grand Central Dispatch, OpenCL, and QuickTime X, it still increments itself following the usual sequence of new Mac OS X reference releases to 10.6.

The name Windows 7 suggests a major new release, when in reality the company's new operating system is internally numbered as Windows 6.1. Microsoft's executives have never denied that Windows 7 was actually a tuneup of Vista. In the words of Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer, "it's Windows Vista, a lot better."

Microsoft is notorious for picking its software version numbers out of marketing meetings rather than scheduling releases around engineering efforts as Apple has. Mac OS X has been progressively and predictably notching up a single increment with every reference release over the past decade, and the internal numbering system for its Darwin core OS numbers back to NeXTSTEP releases of the late 80s (Snow Leopard's Darwin OS release will be 10.0). Mac OS X itself gets its "ten" from the releases of the classic Mac OS. No number games there.

In contrast, the Windows NT code base that both Vista and Windows 7 are based on started its numbering with version 3.1. Exchange Server similarly started out without a 1.0 or 2.0 release for marketing reasons. And really, who would have gotten excited about Windows 2000 and Windows XP if they'd been pushed to market as simply Windows 5.0 and 5.1? Vista and "Windows 7" similarly have far more flamboyant panache than Windows 6.0 and 6.1.

Too Rich

There's no rules that define how developers must number their software, and Microsoft can use all the distraction it wants in creating number games that seek to distance Windows 7 from the disaster that was Vista. Apple certainly employs as much hyperbolic marketing as it can to sell its engineering work to consumers. However, what consumers will see when they unbox a new Windows PC will be a tamed down version of Vista with fewer problems, with a more Mac-like user interface. In contrast, what Mac users will experience with Snow Leopard is a noticeably faster, animately richer, 6GB thinner, and much cheaper operating system experience.

Steve Jobs didn't even need to show up at WWDC to disprove the notion that you can never be too rich or too thin. Now his company is set to show that it's not afraid to be cheap, either. And while Microsoft can continue to harp on the idea that there are lower-end PCs from Dell and HP that forgo sexiness and performance and usability to deliver cheap hardware, it won't be able to say the same thing about the product it actually sells, because a full Windows 7 copy has to be priced at around $300 retail to prop up Microsoft's software-only Windows business, something that's already in flames with the collapse of global PC growth and the tumorous expansion of cheap netbooks that don't reap Microsoft any software revenues.

With Snow Leopard costing a fraction of the cost of Windows 7, it will make Microsoft's cheapskate ads ring hollow and force the company to face dramatically competitive software pricing pressures that the PC industry has never demanded of Microsoft before. In twenty years, the price of Windows has only ratcheted upwards as PC prices have dropped. Apple is now cutting off the PC operating system's oxygen supply just as it helped dry up any demand for Windows Mobile licensing with the iPhone.

Even if Windows 7 gains traction in ways Vista never did, the downward pricing pressure Apple is exerting will prevent Microsoft from inhaling the inflated revenues the company has grown addicted to, which will benefit both Mac users and PC users. Additionally, it promises to potentially open up more opportunities for alternative operating systems such as Linux by cutting the dominating control Microsoft exercises over PC hardware vendors.