Windows 7 may be grabbing all the headlines, but Apple isn't standing still.
It's hard at work developing a major update to the next version of its operating system, dubbed Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard.
When Steve Jobs announced the next version of Mac OS X at WWDC 2008 last summer he pointed out that Apple was putting the brakes on new features to focus on the core functions of Mac OS X, in order to deliver a much faster, and even more stable user experience. Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard is unlikely, then, to tempt you with a raft of showy UI add-ons - it'll simply offer what it Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard already has, but do it a heck of a lot better.
Apple, of course, has been notoriously tight-lipped about what exactly it will entail, but there have been enough leaks, rumours, and rampant speculation to at least give us a hint of what lies ahead. Here are 21 things you need to know about Apple's next release.
1. When is Snow Leopard coming?
Apple CEO Steve Jobs said as long ago as WWDC 2008 that Snow Leopard would be at least a year in the making, so you shouldn't realistically expect to get your hands on it at least until the summer. Some of the more over-enthusiastic Mac rumour sites had suggested we'd see it a lot earlier (Macworld 2009 last January, for example) with others citing a Q1 release or even as late as September 2009. Apple will obviously want the hoopla surrounding Windows 7 to die down; and will be wary of releasing the OS to a deadline - as it arguably did with Mac OS X10.5 Leopard. All of which suggests that Apple will ship Snow Leopard when it is ready, and not a moment before.
2. How much will Snow Leopard cost?
With the exception of Mac OS X 10.1, Apple has charged a small premium for every one of its Mac OS X updates, with the last version - Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard - costing Â£99. If the rumours are true, this time it has a problem on its hands: first, Apple's 'no new features' rule means there won't be a compelling reason to upgrade for Mac users of any stripe; second, if Snow Leopard really is Intel only, there are millions of PowerPC users out there to whom it will confer no benefit at all. Both make a compelling case for reasons why Snow Leopard, when it comes, should be free. Cash-rich as it is Apple could certainly stand to take the hit, especially as Snow Leopard is re-establishing the bedrock for further Mac OS X leaps going forwards. We shall see.
3. Goodbye PowerPC?
One of the most controversial issues surrounding Snow Leopard could be the widely-rumoured abandonment of legacy Macs that use PowerPC processors - Snow Leopard may well be Intel only. Such a move would be controversial because Apple was still selling PowerPC equipped Macs (some with as many as four PowerPC G5 cores) as recently as three and a half years ago - and it normally continues to support versions of old architecture for up to five years. Mac OS X updates have progressively moved the goalposts so that G3 and some G4 processors are no longer supported, and Snow Leopard could see Apple move beyond support for G5 CPUs too. Early developer builds of Snow Leopard have certainly indicated that that will be the case.
4. Hello Cocoa
Snow Leopard will also enable Apple to finally freeze development of the Carbon API it has been using since the advent of Mac OS X in 2001. Carbon had been used to help Mac developers move their applications over to Mac OS X, but Apple has been pushing developers to embrace the much more efficient Cocoa API for some time. One of the most welcome developments in Snow Leopard is that the Mac OS X Finder (the equivalent of Windows Explorer) will finally get a full Cocoa makeover - something that promises to alleviate at least some of its foibles.
5. Parallel power
One of the biggest new 'features' of Snow Leopard will be its ability to fully use the multi-core processors found in today's CPUs. Parallel computing will enable the operating system and the applications to run on it to allocate certain tasks to different cores, enabling Intel Macs to run faster, and much more efficiently than before. Parallel computing, for Mac users at least, isn't new: Apple has been selling Macs that have had multiple processors and/or cores since the PowerPC days. Snow Leopard will properly harness that power so you can reap the real world benefits.
6. Grand Central
The biggest stumbling block to the adoption of multiple and multi-core processors is that developers haven't always been very good at using the CPU power available to best benefit their apps, something that's especially true as computers switch to having four, eight or even more cores. Grand Central gets around that problem by automatically allocating different tasks being carried out by an app to different cores - it doesn't have to be specifically programmed to use them.
7. The benefits of 64-bit
Apple introduced its first 64-bit computers as far back as 2002 with the PowerPC G5, and has steadily moved Mac OS X to native 64-bit support ever since. In a nutshell, 64-bit computing raises the limit on the amount of RAM the operating system - and the apps that work on it - can use from 4GB (32-bit) to 16TB (64-bit). This should ensure that future computers can carry a heck of a lot more RAM, and help RAM-intensive applications - such as those that process digital photos and video - run much faster and more efficiently.
OpenCL or Open Computing Language is a proprietary Apple programming language that enables any operating system that uses it to harness the power of multiple CPUs, specifically the graphics processors, in a computer. AMD, Nvidia and Intel have already signed up to OpenCL, and it will be a core component of Snow Leopard.
9. Mac OS X trims the fat
One of Apple's chief aims with the next version of Mac OS X has been to reduce the amount of space it takes up on your hard drive - whether that's hard disk or SSD based. It has obvious reasons for doing so: the first is that Mac OS X has steadily become more bloated as Apple as lengthened its range of features, and so some housekeeping is in order; the second is that Mac OS X needs to have a much smaller footprint for space-constrained devices like the MacBook Air, the oft-rumoured Mac netbook and even the iPhone. Snow Leopard promises to shave gigabytes worth of data from Mac OS X - potentially enabling the company to have just one core OS for every piece of hardware it makes.
10. Universal Binaries
Apple's very lucky in that it can trim Mac OS X's fat very easily. First it can drop the Universal Binaries that enable to run on both PowerPC and Intel platforms. Then it can makes its own apps much slimmer by enabling them to leverage key components of Cocoa, such as Core Animation, that can carry out much of the heavy lifting at an OS level, rather than requiring application-specific code. The biggest savings come, surprisingly, by compressing certain parts of an app and then using the power of modern CPUs to decompress faster than would be possibly from simply reading the uncompressed data from a hard drive.
11. Smart localisation and printing
Snow Leopard will also able to save space simply by ditching unneeded printer drivers and localised language data. Instead it will be able to detect which printers are available on the network - or which have been used before in the case of an upgrade - and simply install drivers for those, with additional drivers available via download or Spotlight network search. Snow Leopard will also be able to tell from the outset which languages you're likely to need, ditching those you don't. Mac fat trimming apps like XSlimmer are already able to save users acres of hard disk real estate by taking some of the measures above. Snow Leopard should do it all from the get-go.
12. ZFS - bigger, better, smarter file management
Apple introduced a hobbled version of Sun's ZFS file system in Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, but it's likely to get a better outing this time around - in the Server version at least. ZFS is not only scalable in that it enables you to keep track of up to 16 exabytes of data stored on RAID and other storage devices, but it also promises to be incredibly resilient to data loss, so it should never 'accidentally' erase live data. That makes it of obvious benefit to businesses, etc where huge amounts of data are stored.
13. Core Location
Although Apple has said there will be no new features in Snow Leopard, one of the biggest could be Core Location - a part of Mac OS X that enabled the original iPhone to harness Wi-Fi, mobile network and other data to help triangulate your current location. Its use has all kinds of benefits for Mac users, enabling apps to serve up information relevant to your current locale, but could also be used to geotag photos or to physically 'find' other Snow Leopard users in your immediate area.
14. In bed with Exchange
One of few pre-announced benefits of a Snow Leopard upgrade is root-and-branch support for Microsoft Exchange. Key Mac OS X apps that will benefit include Address Book, Mail and iCal, each one of which will be better able to handle synchronisation with Microsoft Exchange servers. That's something which will be of particular benefit in enterprise where the Mac - thanks to the iPhone - is making significant inroads.
15. Push Notification Services (PNS)
Of course, Apple isn't going to hand the whole hog over to Microsoft, even if it needs to be seen to support some of its more widely-used applications. Proof of that comes in the shape of Push Notification Services, an extension of MobileMe on Mac OS X 10.6 Server. PNS will enable server-side applications to push data to iPhones even when a specific application isn't being used - you can imagine it working well with RSS news feed updates, for example. It's unclear yet whether PNS will also extend to ordinary Mac laptops and desktops.
16. More multi-touch
While Apple looks set to avoid some of the tackier trappings of multi-touch (Windows 7, anyone?), it's also certain to extend what Mac users can do right now - enabling Mac developers to include multi-touch gestures in third-party apps, for example.
17. Another look at QuickLook
Mousing over an application icon in Snow Leopard will either enable you to see what the file contains, or enable you navigate through it. With video and music files, a play button will appear that enables you to listen or see its contents without pressing Space to invoke QuickLook proper, or to open the parent application entire. QuickLook icons will also appear on other apps, enabling you to scroll through pages in a word processing document, for example.
18. Smarter Stacks and Put Back
One of the most hyped - yet underwhelming - features of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard was Stacks, a UI gizmo that enables you to explore contents of a nested folder in the Dock: Mac OS X's equivalent of the Windows Taskbar. Snow Leopard looks set to (slightly) extend the capabilities of Stacks by enabling you to navigate nested folders without having to resort to the Finder. Put Back will also finally bring back a bit of OS functionality Apple lost in the transition to Mac OS X. It will enable you to remove something from the Trash and automatically have it returned to its original location, rather than forcing you to do so manually.
19. State of resolution independence
Much more enticing to our mind is resolution independence in Snow Leopard. If you increase the resolution on your display today, you'll notice that everything you see on screen gets progressively smaller until it becomes hard to see. Likewise decreasing the resolution makes everything progressively blockier. Snow Leopard plans to get around that by using vector rather than bitmap graphics that can be scaled in real time, so Mac OS X, your documents and apps will also look detailed and crystal clear at whatever resolution you view them.
20. QuickTime X
Based on the video capabilities of the iPhone, QuickTime X promises to deliver a much richer multimedia experience in Snow Leopard, first by dispensing with the need to pay a Â£29.99 upgrade to QuickTime Pro to get certain functions (video editing, for example); and second, to offer much wider support for different video codecs than QuickTime has right now. In both cases, a free upgrade is long overdue and it's a move Apple needs to make if QuickTime is to stay in contention with the burgeoning range of third-party video apps (VLC, for example) as well as Windows Media.
21. Towards Mac OS X 10.7
Or Mac OS XI or whatever it's called. One of the chief reasons Apple is putting the brakes on crowd-pleasing features is that it wants to prep the way for big feature leaps in future. We've already seen patent applications from Apple that hint at its future direction, not the least of which is some kind of Minority Report-style 3D UI in future. Apple said when it launched the iPhone in January 2007 that "the first 30 years were just the beginning." The next 30 years should be just be as exciting.
With thanks to Apple Insider, Roughly Drafted and others. We know who you are and - thanks to Snow Leopard - we'll soon know where you live.