Annual OS X Release Cadence

In the late 1990s through the mid 2000s Intel found itself in a situation where it was heavily invested in a microprocessor architecture that ultimately had no future. Intel's platform strategy at the time was also guilty of making the wrong bets. Additionally the company was experimenting with broadening its focus and shifting from a microprocessor manufacturer to a silicon manufacturer. The combination of all of these factors left Intel in an extremely vulnerable state, one that its competitors were able to take advantage of.

VIA Technologies, a fairly low-cost player in the chipset business back then, was able to see real success selling chipsets to customers who were displeased with Intel's offerings. The bigger and more painful surprise was that AMD, Intel's chief competitor in the x86 CPU space, was able to gain significant marketshare for the first time in its history.

For Intel, the painful learning experience resulted in an internal mandate: no more surprises. Intel invested heavily in competitive analysis groups that would model the expected performance of the competition's roadmap and feed that data back into the development cycle for its own technologies. The other major change was a shift to a two-year architecture cadence, now known as the tick-tock model.

Significant architecture changes every two years, separated by minor updates and process node shrinks during the interim years guaranteed that Intel's product lineup would always remain fresh. The other thing tick-tock guaranteed was that Intel would only be on the hook for two years with any given architecture. Should the competitive analysis teams have missed something, a two year cadence would make any major course correction feasible before significant marketshare was lost.

While the tick-tock model was somewhat unbelievable in '05 - '06, it makes a lot of sense today after more than a couple successful iterations of it. More recently, Microsoft announced a planned shift to a 3-year OS release cadence. Just last week, Apple announced a move to annual releases of OS X. The benefits of an aggressive release schedule are clear, the question is whether or not it's a model that will work in software like it has for Intel in hardware.

Mountain Lion is supposed to be the first instance of this yearly OS X release cadence. In speaking with Apple it's clear that annual OS X releases is the goal, however we may see some fluctuation. I wouldn't be surprised if over the next few releases Apple doesn't stick to a 12-month cycle, but instead allows for some wiggle room. While Intel's tick-tock model is generally viewed as a success, historically we haven't seen a new microprocessor from Intel every 12 months on the dot. Both in the hardware and in the software space we're talking about major projects requiring, at times, hundreds of engineers. Maintaining a strict schedule is near impossible, but it's important that the goal is there.

Prior to Mountain Lion, major OS X versions were released about every two years. Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard and Lion were released in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011, respectively. Mountain Lion is scheduled for release this summer, likely around 12 - 13 months after Lion's July 2011 release.

Apple's motivations for moving to an annual release cycle for OS X are obvious. Through small but consistent evolution Apple has been able to build iOS from a platform at a feature deficit to the incumbents to an industry leader. It's not uncommon for companies to look at financially successful models internally and apply them to other business units with hopes of achieving similar results.

The Mac business unit isn't in trouble by any means, but as Microsoft becomes more aggressive in wanting to defend Windows' territory Apple is more motivated to respond in kind. Windows 8 is a highly anticipated release from Microsoft and I don't believe it's a blind coincidence that the first preview build of Mountain Lion was made available to developers thirteen days before the Community Preview release of Windows 8. As different as the typical Mac and Windows PC consumers may be, Apple and Microsoft view the audience as a whole as tasty potentials.

There are also the engineering benefits of an aggressive release schedule. We've seen the impacts of tick-tock from Intel and ATI's old philosophy of showing up to the fight. An annual release cadence, at least on the hardware side, tends to trip up the competition more and work out pretty well. Again, it remains to be seen how well this philosophy maps to major OS releases but in theory, it's good.

Finally we have the fluffier benefits. Version numbers get bigger, quicker. There are more PR opportunities and customers generally like getting new things. In the iOS world these updates come for free, so long as you aren't running unsupported hardware. Although Apple has done a good job of lowering the price of OS X over the years, it's unclear whether or not it's going to take the final step and give away the OS for free. OS X as a whole is a bigger, more complex project than iOS (part of why the annual cadence is going to be more difficult to pull off) so I can understand the justification of charging for each update. But from a general consumer perspective it remains to be seen if the expectation for free updates will become commonplace or not.

All in all, a more aggressive release schedule can be a good thing. We've seen it with individual applications (Chrome) but not as much on the OS side. There's the danger of changing too much, too quickly, but Apple has historically done a good job of staying on the right side of change when it comes to OS X. What will this do to point releases? Will we see just as many of them or fewer as a result of the shift in strategy? I suspect the latter will ring true unless Apple decides to significantly grow the OS X team. The bigger question to me is whether or not we'll see a similar move from Microsoft. Each OS X release was always punctuated with slight UI differences that made newer releases feel, well, newer. It's not about implementing dramatic shifts in the UI paradigm every year, it's about the slight changes that make something feel newer or different. It's a mid-cycle refresh in a car maker's lineup. Logically it's not enough to warrant trading your two year old car in on the updated model, but emotionally it makes us do stupid things. Years ago I remember hearing that PC manufacturers were hoping to imitate the automotive concept of buying computers by model year vs. specs. Apple got the closest out of anyone to achieving that goal and its OS X strategy is clearly designed to be in line with that.

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  • ananduser - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Your description fits W8 entirely. Reply
  • steven75 - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Or... Mountain Lion, since you CAN install apps from the internet willy-nilly or drop down to the terminal if you really want to. Reply
  • ananduser - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    The Metro interface that W8 sports is much more dramatic than the effect some features from ios integrated in OSX might have.

    The Metro/Classic duality is also much more akin to ying/yang than the OSX interface which is technically a mash-up.
    Reply
  • Scannall - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    My mom is in her 70's. About a year and a half ago I finally talked her into ditching her Windows ME (Yes, the hated ME) computer. Got her a 27 inch iMac, transferred all her photos and other documents for her. And she has just been thrilled. She has since purchased an iPad 2 and an Apple TV box to go with it.

    And, since setting it up initially, she hasn't needed ANY tech support from me.

    But for the more hard core, and those that like to tinker the Terminal program is still there, with all the command line goodness (Or destruction...).

    Also, it's pretty easy to add either Windows and Linux to your iMac. I have both on mine. Most days anymore I just want to get things done, so I boot into OS X. On the days I feel like tinkering more there is Windows and Linux there for me to play with.
    Reply
  • bji - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    I had a similar experience with my 65 year old mother. After 10+ years of supporting her on Windows computers, I finally bought her a mac mini after her most recent Windows virus infection. It's been the smoothest 6 months of her computer life so far, and the amount of tech support I've had to provide has been much lower. She even figured out how to resize pictures and email them, on her own, something that for some reason after 10+ years of Windows use she still hand't figured out.

    This is just anecdotal evidence of course, and someone else's mother may find the Windows way of doing things comprehensible, but my mom didn't, and given how many similar comments I've read, I have a feeling there is something to Apple's UI design that works well for novice users.

    As a software developer, I have no problem with Apple's approach, as long as they leave the door open for third party applications that don't go through their app store, which so far, they are.

    I personally have never owned a Macintosh, but have alread set aside the money for a 15 inch Macbook Air, just waiting for them to come out. It will be nice to finally be able to port my software to OS X.
    Reply
  • cyabud - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    "I feel Apple as well as all others should provide a simple switch to disable to 'walled garden' "

    This switch you talk of is called Terminal.app

    And I suppose on iOS it's called a jailbreak, but we're talking about OS X here.
    Reply
  • solipsism - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Andrew and Anand describe the Gatekeeper controls in System Preferences and how you can bypass them at anytime by holding down a couple keys.

    Apple has no reason to force you to only buy Mac App Store apps otherwise they would not have offered code signing for external apps which make non-App Store apps safer. They also don't get so much profit from apps that it makes sense to limit to the number of potential Mac buyers.

    Apple is by far the most profitable PC maker in the business and they plan to stay that way, hence their move to faster OS X updates and trying to make OS X as familiar as their more popular iOS platform without negatively impacting usability. So far they are doing a good job of it.
    Reply
  • Conficio - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - link

    Terminal.app is not an open field (as opposed to a walled garden). It's more like the trenches of the [battle of the] somme.

    Really, while a terminal window is nice, the functionality it opens up is undocumented, unsupported and mostly hidden from view. and if you start the app from the terminal it still bitches about "being downloaded from ....", scaring the daylight out of "ordinary" users.

    Really why I give credit to Apple to break the walled prisons of the cell phone carriers (mostly the US variety) on phones, they only did in order to replace it with their own walled garden. At least they allow different producers of the same kind of apps to compete, as they profit from all of them equally, where cell phone carriers pick and choose.
    Reply
  • TEAMSWITCHER - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Just because you can buy the individual parts for a computer and assemble them doesn't make you an expert - you're more like a mechanic.

    Your entire argument is based on a false assumption, that Mac's are simple computers for simple people - a "walled garden". While that is true for those who like it that way, Mac's also include many high knowledge tools that Windows does not. Terminal provides access to these tools that have been a foundation for computers since the early Days of the C programming language and the UNIX operating system. Sorry, the MSDOS box is not even close to comparable.

    Windows is more like a "Theme Park", you can ride all the attractions, but remember you are only a park visitor, and cannot go into areas marked "Authorized Personnel Only." They made damn sure of this by not providing the same tools that are included in each and every MAC OS X installation.
    Reply
  • cjs150 - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Interesting comments to my post even if one (Tim) is obviously Mr Angry.

    I would not ask my 70+ year old mother to build a computer, I would buy her an Ipad because she does not need to understand how is works merely use it.

    But my 10 year old needs to understand computers properly and best way is to start by making her build one (OS will probably by Linux). Maybe that makes her a mechanic (Teamswitcher) but it will also give her a better appreciation of how computers work.

    Yes W8 worries me, it is supposed to be a more mature OS but looks like it was designed by someone whose only previous experience was an Ipad and kids cartoons.

    The problem is that as the computing market matures a lot of assumptions are being made about how people should use the computer. I do not want someone else making assumptions about how I should work, what I want is the software to allow me to work the way I want to.

    Please understand my original post was that the Apple philosphy does not work for me not that I hate Apple.
    Reply

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