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Regretful upgrade: Snow Leopard incompatibilities

Why are so many useful utilities still not ready for Snow Leopard? Some are regretting their haste in upgrading to the new Apple operating system.


Apple's $29 operating-system upgrade, Snow Leopard, is for most users a straightforward and worthwhile upgrade. But some are regretting their haste in upgrading to Mac OS X 10.6. Little incompatibilities with existing apps are causing headaches and slowing down work flow.

It's not the current versions of the big apps that don't work, of course. The latest version of Photoshop still runs. Even the current versions of the close-to-the-metal virtualization applications Parallels and VMware Fusion work in Snow Leopard. Apple's own apps--Mail, Calendar, and iTunes--all work great. And Firefox runs fine, even though Apple has its own competing browser, Safari.

But many little things don't work, and the niggles are frustrating. Dealing with them makes the Mac experience very un-Mac-like. For some users who have spent time tweaking their Mac setup, the operating-system upgrade means a step backward in the pleasure and smoothness of using the platform. They feel a hit in productivity. For people like me, it's the little hacks that make the Mac experience uniquely personal and help me paper over some of the Jobsian UI dictums of which I'd rather not be reminded.

Necessary disclaimer: Apple and third-party developers deserve much credit for ensuring that so many major apps work well in Snow Leopard, since it is such a major under-the-hood upgrade.

Most incompatibilities will be fixed, of course. Apple released Snow Leopard earlier than expected, and developers are scrambling to update their apps. But even some of the big developers have fallen behind the cycle here -- Microsoft's Live Mesh sync and backup product doesn't yet work, for example.

You can see a big list of Snow Leopard compatibility issues at the famous Snow Leopard Wikidot page. For the record, here are some of the small incompatibilities that are driving people where I work up a tree:

iStat Menus, a Mac system monitor, does not work. Developer Marc Edwards said he's been working on the 2.0 version of the product, but that Apple's timing derailed his plans. "We expected that version 2 would have been ready before 10.6 was out," he wrote to me, "but the early release meant that wasn't possible."

The preferences pane for Growl, the universal-app pop-up notifier, doesn't work. The developers say they will update the app as soon as they can.

Apple's early release of Snow Leopard caught developers off guard. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

Cooliris, a slick image viewer plug-in for Firefox, needs an update. Michelle Turner, vice president of product at CoolIris, told me they were caught by surprise when Apple moved up the release of Snow Leopard by about a month from previous expectations. I pressed Turner to compare Apple's developer relations with Microsoft's, and she said, "Microsoft has a more laid-out release plan." Still, Cooliris for Firefox should be out in a day or two. The Safari version is trickier (since that browser is a 64-bit app) and Cooliris is "still evaluating options" for developing its product for it. You can sign up for update notifications.

XMarks, the bookmark and password sync app for browsers, doesn't work on Safari under Snow Leopard. CEO James Joaquin told me that an open beta will be made available via the XMarks blog this week, with a production version probably shortly after Labor Day. On why XMarks missed the bus on Safari in Snow Leopard, he said that the company's lead Safari developer had left and the new one had to be brought up to speed. He added that XMarks is "committed to supporting Safari," but that 90 percent of the company's 3.5 million users are on Firefox.

Letterbox, a plug-in that gives you a three-pane view, doesn't work. The developer missed his own deadline for getting it fixed by Snow Leopard release, likely because Apple changed its release date, but presumably it'll arrive shortly.

Microsoft's cross-platform file synchronization tools, Live Mesh and Windows Live Sync, don't work in Snow Leopard. Microsoft says, "Live Mesh customers will gain support for Snow Leopard in a future release of Windows Live," but would not be more specific as to when that would be. The company is also "investigating an incompatibility" with Live Sync. Alternatives include DropBox and SugarSync, but they're paid apps, and the Microsoft utilities were free.

Finally, there's SynergyKM, an open-source, cross-platform utility that lets you share a keyboard and mouse among multiple machines on your desktop. It works, but the icon and drop-down menu in the OS X navigation bar don't appear. The app was last updated in 2006. A few people in the open-source community are working on a fix for Snow Leopard.

It is unreasonable to expect that every single app and utility that a user is running will survive an operating system upgrade, no matter which company is behind it. And as iStat developer Edwards says, "Many [developers] probably wanted to wait for the final, shipping OS version before releasing updates so they could make sure things worked with the public release." Still, it does appear that Apple made things more difficult for developers by moving the release date for the product up a month from when people had been expecting it. It may have looked like a great marketing move, but it left developers, especially the smallest, more resource-constrained, unable to hop on board.

I like Snow Leopard's improvements and new-found speed, and CNET appropriately recommends it to people who use their Macs off the rack, as it were. But I advise tweakers and geeks to hold off on this upgrade until more developers can catch up to it.