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Myths of Snow Leopard 4: Exchange is the Only New Feature!

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Daniel Eran Dilger
Apple’s limited comments on Snow Leopard, the next version of Mac OS X due in about a year, have opened the playing field for rampant speculation. Here’s a look at a series of myths that have developed around the upcoming release. The fourth myth of Snow Leopard:

Snow Leopard’s only significant new feature will be Exchange Server support.

This myth has been invented by Apple itself, apparently to simplify its marketing. The company seemed quite pleased with its concept of Snow Leopard being a tight code refactoring that focuses on engineering fundamentals rather than marketing-driven bullet points. However, Apple can’t help itself but add in a lot more than it is currently advertising.

That’s good news for anyone who has no need for Exchange support and is worried that Snow Leopard won’t offer anything else but a series of bug fixes. Prior to considering some of the new technologies in Snow Leopard, this article will consider why Apple is hyping the idea of “no new features” and promising an overall improvement in how Mac OS X works under the hood.


The Luxury of Code Refactoring.
Once software to perform some task is written, there are two ways to go about improving it. The first is to add features that make it do new things. The second is referred to as “code refactoring,” a term that describes the practice of optimizing and improving code without changing what it actually does; it just does the same thing better.

Imagine a car maker releasing a new model year by adding tinted windows, a fancy sound system, and new colors and shapes for its sheet metal. That’s adding features. An example of the idea of code refactoring in an automobile might be reworking its suspension for a better ride, tuning the performance of its engine to make it more efficient and powerful, and stress testing its seat belts to ensure they won’t tear or break in an accident.

New features are nice, but refactoring the existing design is crucial to delivering a better product. The problem is that it’s harder to sell “better” than “new,” even though better is certainly, well, better.

Bill Gates Defined the Software Market with New, not Better.
As the founder of a marketing-driven rather than engineering-driven software company, Bill Gates recognized the shortcut of selling new over better early on. Back in 1995, Gates explained to Focus magazine why his company cared more about adding new features than refactoring code to fix bugs.

“The reason we come up with new versions is not to fix bugs,” Gates said. “It’s absolutely not. It’s the stupidest reason to buy a new version I ever heard. When we do a new version we put in lots of new things that people are asking for. And so, in no sense, is stability a reason to move to a new version. It’s never a reason.”

Because new features were easier to sell to consumers than the concept of good software, Microsoft took the low road of selling the absolute bare minimum in code quality while touting (or at least promising) all sorts of new features. Consumers and even businesses fell for this hook, line, and sinker, enriching Microsoft while driving the software industry to embarrassingly low new depths.

1990-1995: Why the World Went Windows
How Microsoft has become the Beleaguered Apple ‘96
10 FAS: 10 – Apple’s Mac and iPhone Security Crisis

You Can’t Always Have What You Want.
Few software engineers have the privilege of writing whatever code they wish to write. Those that work for large companies are often pushed to add Microsoft-style, customer-facing features that will help sell the product. Even developers who run their own operation are often compelled to spend most of their time thinking up features to convince customers to buy their titles rather than being able to focus on building the best software they can.

The problem lies with the public perception of the value of software. Consumers happily pay for hardware, but hate having to buy software. They are well aware that the hardware they buy will soon be replaced by a faster model with more RAM at perhaps a lower price, but when it comes to software, every new release that “only” fixes bugs is regarded as something that “should have been” offered for free.

But why? It is typically much harder to track down and eliminate bugs than to simply tack on more new features. That should suggest that highly refined software should cost more than buggy software that has only been painted with a fresh coat of features. In the enterprise world, highly reliable, mission critical code does cost a lot. High quality software is very hard to find in the consumer market because consumers are typically too cheap to pay for it, thanks to a legacy of sloppy coding and apparent price undercutting perpetuated by Microsoft in the race to control markets rather than sell quality code.

1990-1995: Microsoft’s Yellow Road to Cairo
Office Wars 3 – How Microsoft Got Its Office Monopoly

How to Escape the Trap of Bad Software.
Is it possible to sell quality to a population that has become complacent in consuming quantity on the cheap? Yes, it just requires adding some education to your marketing. Informed users will pay more for a better quality product, but only if they understand why it’s better. Once it was discovered that consumers would pay more for higher quality food, efforts shifted toward selling organic, healthy alternatives to cheap junk food.

Apple has the luxury of taking on such a challenge because it isn’t facing an immediate need to out-feature Windows Vista. The company has announced that Snow Leopard will involve a lot of code refactoring to tighten up performance, improve reliability, and slim down disk consumption. The only new feature, according to Apple, will be new support for push messaging with Exchange Server. That isn’t exactly accurate however.

In some respects, many of the new features in Snow Leopard can be regarded as a form of code refactoring because they will only improve how things work, rather than adding extensive new features. But there will also be a lot of new features that are just plain new.

The next article presents Ten Big New Features in Mac OS X Snow Leopard.

WWDC 2008: New in Mac OS X Snow Leopard
Myths of Snow Leopard 1: PowerPC Support — RoughlyDrafted Magazine
Myths of Snow Leopard 2: 32-bit Support
Myths of Snow Leopard 3: Mac Sidelined for iPhone
Myths of Snow Leopard 4: Exchange is the Only New Feature!
Myths of Snow Leopard 5: No Carbon!

Cocoa for Windows + Flash Killer = SproutCore
Apple’s other open secret: the LLVM Complier

Ten Big New Features in Mac OS X Snow Leopard


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17 comments

1 Ephilei { 06.20.08 at 2:10 pm }

To me, and it seems most people who tell me they’ll buy a Mac next, the OS is attractive because of the “just works” feeling: easy to use, doesn’t crash, fast and stays fast, no bugs, etc. I’ve yet to here someone switch because of Time Machine or Spotlight. When Leopard first shipped with all its bugs, I was recommending Tiger because it did all the above things better. I think people buy an OS based on reputation and their overall experience more than having a specific reason. At this point, a more refined OS X will do more for their marketing than great features.

2 Ephilei { 06.20.08 at 2:13 pm }

BTW Daniel, thanks for actually talking about Snow Leopard. I think you’re the only writer doing more than repeating Apple’s talking points now. Since OS X is the heart behind everything Apple does, the next version should be getting way more attention than it is.

3 geoffrobinson { 06.20.08 at 4:50 pm }

This is the advantage Apple has. They sell hardware and an experience. So they don’t have to drum up new software sales. They can concentrate on making the experience and the software better because Macs are still going to sell.

When I worked for a large company, we charged our customer for the time I would be working on internal tools. What I learned was that you better do something well the first time, which isn’t really possible. Because if it works, but not that well, you are stuck with it.

No one is going to approve spending money to make something better which already works. Unless you can trick them.

Apple’s business model removes that problem for them.

Microsoft and other software companies have a problem. Why would someone buy an upgrade for something that works reasonably well? Office is running into that problem. Office 97 would be perfectly fine for the most part.

Vista isn’t (from what I hear, I refuse to buy it) working well. People will pay to downgrade, let alone upgrade, to XP.

4 Jetpack { 06.20.08 at 8:31 pm }

The article is fine overall, but I want to point out that you are incorrect in your description of what “refactoring” is. What you’re describing (improvements in code performance) is called “optimization.” The goal of refactoring is not to improve code performance; it’s to make the code easier to read, use, debug, maintain, and extend. This may be harder for non-programmers to grasp, but it is a very important practice in software engineering.

5 Bill Gates famous quote to Focus Magazine, “The reason we come up with new versions is not to fix bugs.” « Dmtherob’s Weblog { 06.20.08 at 8:52 pm }

[...] clipped from http://www.roughlydrafted.com [...]

6 Akie { 06.21.08 at 12:58 am }

There may not be many new features in Snow Leopard but there will be many new features in iLife and other applications.

7 lmasanti { 06.21.08 at 7:29 am }

quote:
“There may not be many new features in Snow Leopard but there will be many new features in…”

…the iPhone version of OS X!

8 Danthemason { 06.21.08 at 7:52 am }

Thanks Daniel,
It takes reading twice but we non tech types can too benefit from your efforts. Happy hunting in Europe. You should contact a few TMO members there.

9 lmasanti { 06.21.08 at 7:54 am }

quote:
“The problem lies with the public perception of the value of software. Consumers happily pay for hardware, but hate having to buy software. ”

Maybe this is the “new feature” of Snow Leopard: People will pay happyly the $129- for a “good quality software”!
(…as people was paying $500 for a “good quality” cellphone!)

10 John Muir { 06.21.08 at 9:04 am }

@ Ephilei

Quite right. Daniel is easily the leading writer on Snow Leopard at the moment, followed in second by “Prince McLean” at AppleInsider!

It’s understandable (though not good) that news sites bluster about what’s new today, as it’s the essence of their self appointed remit. Snow Leopard for them is a vague statement from Apple about “OpenCL” (huh?), “Grand Central” (juh?) and “in about a year”. No surprises what their headlines *were* before they moved along, as orderly as ever, to write about the next thing.

The wider problem seems to be that the places we go for analysis have caught the news bug. Usually the Mac Web is rich with in depth opinion pieces, lengthy illustrated UI critiques and treatises on whatever idea has stolen the author’s mind. Snow Leopard has easily won the prize for least specific interest that I’ve seen in my five years on the platform and in the sites and blogs. Compare the monumental furore this time three years ago over the Intel transition, or last year’s hysterics over the iPhone … Snow Leopard isn’t even getting the same Mac Web buzz as Panther.

Apple are very likely the main reason for this. The way that Steve shuffled the next big cat right out of his keynote and into the private developer sessions pretty much pushed it out of mind for the professional journalists. The fact that the bullet points so far released are technical (OpenCL and Grand Central) and unexciting (no big new features besides Exchange, no new UI by the sound of it) has kept the blogs quiet as well. Apple have chosen to focus eyes on the iPhone 3G rollout, as they should. So it’s no real mystery, just frustrating!

As a newbie developer and a keen technical Mac user, I am of course very interested in the deep promise that seems to lie at the heart of Snow Leopard. LLVM, GPGPU and a new assault on the problems posed by parallel processing hardware are all very worthy of in depth coverage and analysis.

So yes, good job we have Daniel writing for us. The other leading Apple analysts (Gruber, Siracusa, where are you on this?) have some catching up to do.

11 Mr. Reeee { 06.21.08 at 12:29 pm }

Apple is smart not to try to sell new features before they’re ready. There’s plenty of time for Apple to trot out a true and accurate list of features & improvements.

There’s nothing worse, nor more embarrassing, than having to remove previously hyped upcoming features. Think of Leopard’s promised resolution independent display technology. Where’d it go?

Or worse, Vista hyped a huge array of features that were shorn from it the longer it’s release was delayed. As Daniel quoted in the article, what’s a Microsoft product without an X-mas list of new features? Clearly, not much.

12 Andrew { 06.21.08 at 6:55 pm }

Another excellent article. I am a fan of Martin Fowler and his writings on software design and refactoring. One of the key benefits of refactoring is that it organises code in a better way, leading to well designed and better tested code. Ultimately what refactoring will give Apple is a better Mac OS X today, but will also make future development easier. Adding features to code that has been refactored is easier than tacking on a feature to badly written and badly designed software. Refactoring will pay for itself.

13 Berend Schotanus { 06.22.08 at 11:15 am }

Fascinating!

I am intrigued by the concept of “code refactoring”. Daniel’s explanation of customer preferences seems quite accurate. It does not only explain why Windows is the way it is but also why tech gadgets in general have so much unusable features.

And then there seems to be a short term versus long term conflict of interests. On the short term people are impressed with geeky new gadgets with lots of features. And they are afraid of missing the essential feature that their friend boast about (“What, no second video camera on your smartphone?”) On the longer term people discover lots of features don’t really work and features tend to be replaced by usability as a sales argument (in a stage, of course, where the product isn’t geeky anymore). Look at videorecorders in the late 1980′s compared to the late 1990′s.

So on the short term the Bill Gates strategy (not to fix bugs) has been extremely profitable but on the longer term, while consumer preference shifts to usability and real performance, it leaves him with a difficult to maintain and inefficient legacy.
The fact Apple comes with Snow Leopard indicates they are investing in the future. They know its not a popular story for consumers, but then: why would they wake up competitors now when they can take the world by surprise with features that can be released in a few years time built upon the base that is now under construction?

I think it is a story that also holds for other kind of tech consumer articles. Ten years ago everybody thought Toyota had gone completely mental by developing hybrid cars and spending their money on improving internal efficiency of a car while consumers were asking for SUV’s and ATV’s that could impress their neighbors. No need to explain what the situation looks like now…

14 lmasanti { 06.22.08 at 5:29 pm }

@Berend Schotanus
Code refactoring

15 unscriptable { 06.22.08 at 9:54 pm }

Akie is right: iLife will certainly get some features — or at least a huge performance boost as Apple starts utilizing Grand Central. I expect we’ll see a five-to-tenfold increase in speed in iDVD and iMovie.

The OS alone will be 33% faster (or more) based off of early results using LLVM with GCC.

I can’t wait for my poor Vista-suffering colleagues to start salivating over my speedy new MBP (only it won’t be very new at all)!

16 Bill Gates famous quote to Focus Magazine, “The reason we come up with new versions is not to fix bugs.” « DMTheRob’s Weblog { 09.12.08 at 6:26 pm }

[...] from http://www.roughlydrafted.com Bill Gates Defined the Software Market with New, not Better. As the founder of a marketing-driven [...]

17 What, Where, When, Why & How much - Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard - ThinkTeen Forums { 09.13.08 at 8:43 am }

[...] Myths of Snow Leopard 4: Exchange is the Only New Feature! June 20th, 2008 Myths of Snow Leopard 4: Exchange is the Only New Feature! Well, to start, we can just look at the Snow Leopard and Snow Leopard Server pages on Apple.com, and see what is publicly listed as features… It helps Apple keep its work under the radar for a bit longer, and simplifies current marketing. Apple it seems has several reasons to promote the idea of "no new features", whilst promising overall improvements in how Mac OS X works under the hood (in a kind of "don’t tell me how it works, just show it works" way). Apple has the opportunity to improve its code through: – code refactoring (Wiki definition: Code refactoring is the process of changing a computer program’s code to make it amenable to change, improve its readability, or simplify its structure, while preserving its existing functionality. – Martin Fowler has apparently written in depth about refactoring) – Beyond code refactoring in it’s strictest sense, optimising the code – adding new features From the sounds of Quicktime X, Apple will be doing a mix of things. It has the opportunity to make 64-bit versions of apps, optimise the apps, add new features, and also pare the app size down). (Aside in the article: Bill Gates was a big fan of "new" rather than "better" as can be seen by quotes from him- in an interview with Focus magazine in 1995, he explained why his company cared more about adding new features than refactoring code to fix bugs:

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