Could old Macs be left behind by new operating system?

John Boudreau
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Apple's Leopard operating system isn't even a year old, but its offspring, Snow Leopard, is already preparing to prowl.

Earlier this month, Steve Jobs gave a hint - and only a hint - about Apple's next-generation operating system. A "preview" that was shown to software writers attending Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco indicated the new OS might run only on 2-year-old or newer Macintosh computers powered by Intel processors. That would leave behind millions of owners of Macs equipped with PowerPC chips.

Apple has not said if the final version of Snow Leopard, which is expected to be released in about a year, will be designed solely for its Intel machines.

On June 9, Bertrand Serlet, Apple's senior vice president of Software Engineering, said the company has "hit the pause button on new features" for Snow Leopard.

Apple's engineers are working on the "plumbing" of the operating system to take advantage of super-fast, next-generation Intel processors. And the Cupertino, Calif., company will make it easier for independent developers to build applications that utilize that computing power.

Observers don't expect Jobs to say much more about Snow Leopard until January at the company's annual Macworld Conference. But just a glimpse of the latest big cat from Apple has created speculation and buzz among Mac fans and analysts.

While the Macintosh operating system doesn't have gadget-celebrity status like Apple's iPod digital music player and iPhone, it's core to what the company does.

Apple executives have long talked about their ability to seamlessly link sleek hardware with one-click-simple software.

"We can engineer the hardware and software together in a way that allows us to do things you just can't if one company is making the hardware and some company that is miles away is making the software," Apple vice president Greg Joswiak said. "We engineer these things together."

But would Apple pull the plug on upgrades to its older Macs less than two years after completing the transition of all its computers to Intel processors? Probably not, said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies.

"There are still millions of PowerPCs out there," he said. "That's a lot of business."

The PC "refresh" cycle for many Americans is three to five years, so many Mac users aren't ready to whip out the credit cards for a new machine just yet, Bajarin added.

Developing a new operating system is easier, though, if engineers don't have to worry about "backward" coding for older systems, observed American Technology Research analyst Shaw Wu. "There was some warning when Leopard came out that this might be the last PowerPC (operating system) version," he said.

Some speculate that Apple could release two versions of Snow Leopard, one for Intel Macs and one for those powered by PowerPCs. Richard Doherty, an analyst with the Envisioneering Group, suggested there could be a Snow Leopard "lite" that would lack some features available to those using Intel Macs.

Leopard, released last fall, was well received by critics and consumers. Competitor Microsoft, on the other hand, has stumbled with Windows Vista, which has generated scores of complaints and caused many consumers to question whether it is superior to its predecessor, Windows XP.

Globally, Apple sold 7.8 million desktop and notebook computers, capturing 3 percent of the market last year, according to research firm IDC. That represented a 38 percent growth rate, which was more than double the industry average. In the United States, Apple sold 4.2 million units, which was 6 percent of the market. That was a 34 percent increase from 2006 and five times the industry average.

"Apple does appear to be on a very successful cycle of making ongoing, fairly consistently spaced upgrades to the operating system," said Michael Cherry, analyst with Directions on Microsoft, an independent research organization. "And it isn't just that they get them out on time, but that each one has sufficient value. They seem to do very well in encouraging people to upgrade to the latest version."






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