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Why I think Apple OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard” is for upcoming Atom-based devices

It’s the week before Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). That means the rumor mill is in overdrive. I’m not immune – it’s fun to speculate! :-) Take this post for what it’s worth. I don’t have any inside information, I don’t know any secrets, I’m just guessing and having fun.

Besides the new 3G iPhone (which is almost a certainty), the other juicy tidbit that surfaced this week was news of a new operating system revision – OS X 10.6. Jacqui at Ars got the scoop, letting us know that it’s supposed to be called “Snow Leopard”, move completely to Cocoa (dropping legacy Carbon support), and that it will be for Intel processors only (dropping support for the PowerPC chips in older Macs), and not contain any new features, only enhancements to stability, performance, and security.

But a few things just don’t add up to me. It sounds plausible that a new operating system would get announced at the Developer conference (as opposed to a consumer event), to give developers time to get ready for its release. I could buy that it’s Intel-only – they’ll probably drop PowerPC support at some point. But it does seem a little soon to be talking about the next OS release – OS X 10.5 Leopard has barely been out 8 months. And people would be reluctant to plunk down the $129 that Apple has always charged for a new release of Mac OS X if it doesn’t have any new features.

Then, yesterday, it hit me. What if this new version of Mac OS X, 10.6 “Snow Leopard”, isn’t intended for Macs at all, but for a new class of device altogether? Say, the long-rumored Apple tablet device, a Mobile Internet Device, based on the new Intel Atom processor?

I’ve been chewing on this for a while, and it all makes sense. I can’t find anything that refutes the idea. And the more I think about it, the more I think I’m right. :-) I haven’t seen anyone else speculate along these lines (though I could be wrong), so if that’s the case, I may get to say “you heard it here first!” :-)

Here are the reasons I think the new OS is for a new class of Atom-based, non-Mac devices:

  1. A “tablet” device, bigger than an iPhone but smaller than a MacBook, has been rumored FOREVER. How many appearances has it made it to John Siracusa’s WWDC and MacWorld Bingo cards? 😉
  2. An Intel Germany executive was recently quoted as saying Apple would be launching an Atom-powered mobile internet device at WWDC (this was later denied by Intel).
  3. Banners were spied at the Moscone Center this week with “OS X Leopard” and “OS X iPhone” on them. Some have speculated this might mean Apple is going to license OS X to 3rd party manufacturers. But what if it means there will be a new class of device that runs OS X that’s not a Mac computer, but isn’t an iPhone either?
  4. It doesn’t make sense to do a whole new OS release (10.5 –> 10.6), with a new code name (“Snow Leopard”), but not add any new features. If they were just going to improve performance, security, and stability, that’s what point releases, like the recent 10.5.3 update, are for. For every one of the six “full” releases of OS X, up through 10.5 Leopard, they’ve charged $129 for the upgrade, but each version has added significant new features. People won’t want to plunk down money for 10.6 without new features, but if 10.6 IS for a new class of Atom-based devices, it would make sense to classify it as a whole new release, with a new version number and code name, since it won’t be sold on its own. The “Snow Leopard” code name also seems to indicate something related to Leopard, but different. No previous OS X code names (Puma, Panther, Tiger, etc.) have had such a close correlation.
  5. Dropping support for legacy technology, like the PowerPC processors, and dropping Carbon for Cocoa, has to happen sometime. But the timing makes perfect sense if 10.6 is for a new class of device that won’t even have those technologies. No need for PowerPC support if the devices that run the OS are going to have Intel Atom processors. No need to maintain legacy Carbon applications if Apple wants to encourage developers to write new applications in Cocoa for this new class of device.
  6. As I was talking about this idea on Twitter a while ago, @davechen pointed out a Gizmodo article that says 10.6 will still support PPC chips. But what caught my eye in the article was this little tidbit: “A number of drivers didn’t load on a Core 2 Duo MacBook, because it was using a 64-bit kernel and the drivers were only 32. The kernel was not only 64-bit though.” I could be completely wrong here, but I think the Intel Atom processor doesn’t have the 64-bit capabilities that the Core 2 processors do. So the seeming backwards step of not having 64-bit drivers could make sense for Atom.
  7. Maybe developers will use a new version of the iPhone SDK to write apps for these new devices. Perhaps that’s why the SDK has been Intel-only from the beginning. Apps for the iPhone are compiled for its ARM processor, completely different from either Intel or PPC architectures. But why complicate things with PowerPC stuff if you wanted to expand the SDK to create apps for the Intel x86 architecture in Atom (which could compile and run natively on Intel CPUs).

Like I said, it’s just a lot of guessing and speculation at this point, but I think it holds together pretty well. If Steve Jobs wanted to say “oh by the way, we’re introducing a whole new class of device” during his WWDC keynote on Monday, he’s want to give the audience full of developers a heads up so they can start writing apps.

Think I’m on to something? Want to debunk my thinking, and tell me I’m full of crap? You’re welcome to. Maybe this will attract the notice of the Macalope or Daring Fireball’s Jon Gruber, and I’ll get the full “you’re an idiot, and here’s why” treatment from them. *swoon* Either way, it should be fun! Only a couple more days until WWDC, and we’ll know if I’m right or wrong! :-)

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18 thoughts on “Why I think Apple OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard” is for upcoming Atom-based devices

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  6. Snow Leopard and no extra features sounds like a bizarre combination that just doesn’t make sense.

    I would think that a bigger device would simply use Leopard instead of some in between version since developing software for all those different platforms would be a pain. I find myself hoping there will not be a large screen iPhone because my software, relying on the old fixed size, isn’t going to look good on it.

    I think it was Daniel Eran that pointed out that the EEE PC, however much the press lionized it, sold only about 300,000 copies, which is far from the success of iPhone. It’s possible that Apple could not do all that well with a device of this form factor, but of course they have a way of getting people to love their products that no other computer maker can beet.

    D

    PS You might want to investigate that on my PowerBook G4 with Safari, I can barely read the font I’m typing in – I think you might want to adjust the size a little bigger. It feels strangely pixelated at this size.

  7. @David – those are some good points. Why WOULD a tablet-like device need a new OS? Well, if it runs at Atom processor, OS X iPhone is right out, because it’s compiled (and presumably optimized) for ARM processors (which are a whole other architecture from Intel x86 chips, like the Core 2 and Atom procs). So that leaves full blown OS X Leopard (for Macs). There’s a LOT of stuff in Leopard that just wouldn’t be needed in a small mobile device – PowerPC support, etc. It makes sense to give such a device it’s own OS, one that’s optimized for the platform, and leaves out the unnecessary bits from full blown Leopard.

    And sure, the Eee PC doesn’t sell as much as the iPhone, or other computers. That’s because it’s the first of a whole new market of computers – the “netbooks” as Intel calls them, or mini-notes as the rest of the world seems to call them. Witness the new devices that have appeared since the Eee PC proved itself popular – the HP Mini-note, the MSI Wind, the Dell Mini Inspiron, and countless others from various asian OEMs. It’s a whole new category – one that Apple could easily dominate with the right hardware, and a slimmed down version of OS X. If you were in the market for a mini-notebook, and Apple had an offering that matched the caliber of Macs, iPhones, and iPods, wouldn’t YOU want to buy one? 😉

    Oh, and not sure what the font problem is. It’s probably my theme, K2. I’ve seen in do weird things in some browsers. Sorry about that!

  8. PIF says:

    K2 is not compatible with the WP 2.5 series – you will see weird stuff and eventually the site will break … or so I’ve read.

  9. @PIF I’ve been running a nightly of K2 ever since WP 2.5 came out, and it’s generally been fine. I live on the edge, man! :-)

    Actually, I’ve been running K2 a lot longer than that. What I meant was that when I upgraded to WP 2.5, I grabbed the latest version out of SVN, to see if it worked, and it’s been fine.

  10. stefn says:

    This possibility in mind, imagine the “Apple of Your i” compact digital camera, with killer diller features. We incorrigible consumer types simply refuse to haul around DSLR monster cameras; we want the camera equivalent of the light and thin Macbook Air. And imagine a camera with OSX:

    * MULTITOUCH: I can blow up the shot and see if I caught the spinach in Aunt Gertie’s teeth.

    * WIFI: Let me mail my photos directly from the camera with WIFI.

    * HDR: High dynamic range imaging, onboard the camera. If you ain’t seen HDR, check out Hydra or Photomatix. HDR makes great postcard photographers out of anybody. Can you say “photography for the rest of us”?

    * And let me “HDR” my shots immediately while in the field. When I bracket a shot, make it happen automatically. Let me see it on a big bright screen.

    * IVE: His design touch, a great lens, image stabilization, burst mode, auto bracketing, no shutter lag, a 1.6 sensor, and RAW file setting. Sell it for under $750 list, $650 street.

  11. But if Snow Leopard on this new device would look and act the same as MacOS X, even if it leaves out PowerPC support and the like, it seems like it would be advertised as the same product, with the differences invisible to the user. That’s very Apple.

    Still … Snow Leopard does sound more like a companion than a separate thing. So we will just have to see.

    With higher capacity iPhones, how about a way to suck photos down from your digital camera and use iPhone’s photo viewing interface to use them? I think that’s far more likely than a digital camera. The problem with a digital camera is that many people are just as passionate about their Nikons and Canons as they are about Macs.

    The genius of Apple has been to find a product category in which products are disliked by their owners (like cellphones) or too complex for non-geeky people to use (like music players). I don’t think digital cameras are disliked enough by their owners for this to work.

    However, you might partially get your way – I expect iPhone’s camera to improve significantly over the coming years and that may be a fair substitute. With the exception of the Digital SLR, which is used by people who really love to dabble in the complexity of photography, I expect the standalone photo market to decline as cellphone cameras improve.

    D

  12. As I was talking about this idea on Twitter a while ago, @davechen pointed out a Gizmodo article that says 10.6 will still support PPC chips. But what caught my eye in the article was this little tidbit: “A number of drivers didn’t load on a Core 2 Duo MacBook, because it was using a 64-bit kernel and the drivers were only 32. The kernel was not only 64-bit though.” I could be completely wrong here, but I think the Intel Atom processor doesn’t have the 64-bit capabilities that the Core 2 processors do. So the seeming backwards step of not having 64-bit drivers could make sense for Atom.

    The first IA32 macs weren’t Core2 based but Core based… Core doesn’t support 64bit so all Intel macs are not 64bit capable. (Blame Yonha – 32bit only).

    Also – Atom is 64bit capable except the cheapest SKU.

  13. Byron McCollum says:

    Remember the supposed ‘Top Secret’ features of Leopard?
    Remember the subsequent delay of Leopard?
    Remember everyone asking what those ‘Top Secret’ features actually were after Leopard’s release?
    Remember Safari for Windows, and it being described as ‘Like a Glass of Ice Water in Hell’?

    Snow Leopard is the PC Release of Leopard.

    It was the ‘Top Secret’ feature.
    It was the source of the delay.
    It never made the 10.5.0 cut.
    It is now ready.

    Think about it.
    Intel only.
    Cocoa only.
    No new features.
    Focus on stability and security.

    And I have a feeling that ‘Snow Leopard’ won’t actually be 10.6. While a preview of 10.6 will be shown, Snow Leopard is just good old Leopard for PCs.

  14. zato says:

    Here is another possibility: Think about Apple/PA Semi. Why did Apple buy PA Semi? The only answer that fits all the developments is that Apple will introduce new Macs with Graphics Accelerators. Something like Intel X86 + Altivec. PA Semi will design the Accelerator chip. Snow Leopard will be the OS that takes advantage of it. This strategy has many advantages over multiple cores. Apple could then offer OSX to the PC world, yet Macs would still have this acceleration feature that PC clones wouldn’t, because Apple owns PA Semi.

  15. AGS says:

    The ATOM processor DOES IN FACT support 64bit – as a matter of fact it makes a huge difference to run in 64bit mode on my FreeBSD 7.1/ZFS based NAS setup.

    The processor (ATOM 230 @ 1.6Ghz – “Single Core”) is actually quite zippy for the ~4 watts that it uses. On the Windows side of things, it is almost unusable with XP 32bit, whereas with 64bit (even Windows Server 64bit) it works fine and is very usable.

  16. Barrett says:

    As far as I can tell the Atom N270 and N280 that are found in most netbooks are NOT 64-bit compatible.

    I have run Snow Leopard Build *286 on a Core 2 Duo TabletPC and most old drivers with the exception of audio (AppleHDA) just worked.

    Of course I don’t think many of the OSX86 project kexts have been compiled for 64 bit yet, so when I ran the system with 64-bit kernel and extensions, I had to use an external keyboard/mouse on my laptop! Video BIOS seems to be the same.

    It’s nice that unlike Win or Lin, with Mac the 64- and 32-bit versions of the OS are one and the same.

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