The steady advance of Mac OS X

With Leopard's arrival later today, Apple's delivered five major upgrades to Mac OS X in six years, showing that small morsels can be more satisfying than biting off more than you can chew.

Progress is measured in steps both big and small. The smaller ones may get less attention, but they are much easier to take.

It's been a year of big steps for Apple. The company dropped the "Computer" from its name in January as a way of showing Apple was no longer just about the Mac, and the clear priority for 2007 in Cupertino was to get the iPhone out the door and selling briskly. Then, perhaps for kicks, it decided to overhaul its entire lineup of iPods.

Later today, Apple will take a smaller step, with the launch of Mac OS X 10.5, code-named Leopard. Leopard's coming on scene later than expected, almost 30 months after Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4) launched in April 2005, in part due to the push to get the iPhone out in time. CNET'S review is in, and my colleagues Elsa Wenzel and Robert Vamosi are positive.

Leopard, the latest version of Mac OS X, goes on sale at 6 p.m. today wherever you live. Apple

There are dozens of important new features in Leopard, perhaps most notably the Time Machine application that could make it easier for users to back up and restore their files. Backing up your files is generally a simple exercise with a external hard drive, but Time Machine is interesting because of the friendly way in which it lets you restore files, flying back in time (and space) to the last instance in which that file was saved.

But all the reviewers, including Apple favorites Walt Mossberg at The Wall Street Journal and David Pogue at The New York Times, felt compelled to point out that Leopard is very much an evolution of previous versions of Mac OS X, and not a dramatic breakthrough like some past releases. It's certainly nothing like the tectonic shift Microsoft users went through in the switch from Windows XP to Vista, or Windows 98 to XP.

That can come off as a negative assessment. But it's not.

Computing trends change so quickly now: are you doing the same things with your Mac today that you were when Tiger was released in 2005? Maybe, but you're definitely capable of doing much more today, and even more so compared with when the first version of Mac OS X arrived in 2001. With Leopard, Apple will have made five major upgrades to the original Mac OS X operating system in six years.

Guess what other operating system made its debut in 2001. After the launch of Windows XP that year, it took Microsoft a well-documented eternity to release Vista, during which it changed its goals for the operating system several times and wound up releasing a solid, if underwhelming product earlier this year.

Here's the lesson: making smaller, more frequent changes to your product makes it much easier to stay on top of a changing industry than a five-year plan will ever allow. It keeps engineers on their toes and also makes the bean counters happy. That's because modest upgrades can be released more frequently that still have enough new bells and whistles to justify charging for the new software. A new copy of Leopard, for example, will set you back $129.

As my colleague Ina Fried noted to me as we watched the World Series on Wednesday night, Microsoft does make incremental changes to Windows. But it calls them service packs, and it gives them away for free. Apple sits in a happy middle, where it can make substantial--yet relatively modest--additions to Mac OS X, charge more than $100 each time, and have customers walk away satisfied that the upgrade was worth their time and money.

Of course, life is different for Microsoft. As they add new features, they have to make sure everything plays nicely with a 20-year history of code, so their business customers don't freak out. This makes it much harder for Redmond to turn on a dime to respond to new trends like mobility or multimedia.

Leopard's a run-scoring double, to stretch the baseball analogy. It's not a revolution in Mac software, but it's a nice advance for older Mac owners as well as those new to the company in the last year or so. If Apple can get back on the 12- to 18-month pace of new releases that CEO Steve Jobs told The Times he'd like to stick to over the next several years, Apple could be able to pick out the next trend in personal computing well ahead of Microsoft if the engineers in Redmond stay on their current schedule.

The age-old Apple-Microsoft debate is changing. Microsoft continues to run a very profitable business , and even if Apple continues to expand its Mac market share, Windows will remain by far the dominant PC operating system when this decade ends.

But Apple has more momentum, as the iPhone and iPod continue to make both the mobile phone and music industries take notice. It has more investment, now worth more than tech-industry stalwarts IBM and Intel but still well behind Microsoft. And it's more nimble, a crucial advantage as an era dominated by the PC comes to a close and something new takes its place.

I'm not touching the Vista versus Leopard question until I've had a chance to use them both more thoroughly. But is Leopard a more significant advance compared to Tiger than Vista is compared to Windows XP? Nope. And Jobs is probably fine with that.

About the author

    Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.

     

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