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! :-)