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Race for the next OS: Windows 7 and Snow Leopard could ship the same month

By John Rizzo
September 15, 2008

The 120-year-old Giants-Dodgers rivalry has nothing on the Apple-Microsoft OS competition, which is heating up faster than you can say ground rule double.

On Friday, InternetNews reported that Microsoft may be planning to ship Windows 7 in June of 2009, six months ahead of the announced schedule. Perhaps not coincidentally, June 2009 is the "approximate" month that Apple has said it would ship its next OS, Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. InternetNews said Microsoft's "internal calendar" puts the date as June 3, 2009. And, this past April, Bill Gates indicated that Windows 7 could come within a year. A day later, Microsoft reinforced the January 2010 date.

Industry watchers had expected the first Windows 7 beta release to come in late October, when Microsoft . But last Thursday, Mary-Jo Foley of ZDnet reported that Microsoft will delay the beta to mid-December, according to her sources. If that were true, a January 2010 release would be a quicker turnaround from a first beta than Microsoft typically has done; a ship date of June of 2009 would be exceptional.

As with Microsoft, Apple's development time frame to ship Snow Leopard a year after announcing it, is also more compressed than Apple's usual OS development cycle. Apple could easily slip to Windows 7's January 2010 launch. But for both companies, there is less to do than with past efforts.

The Windows 7 and Snow Leopard upgrades will be smaller steps than XP-to-Vista and Tiger-to-Leopard. Both Apple and Microsoft are taking the approach of evolving what they already have. This is evident in Apple's re-use of the word "Leopard" in Mac OS X 10.6. Apple has said that Snow Leopard will focus on performance optimizing other under-the-hood enhancements rather than new features.

Windows 7 may be a kind of Vista 2.0, with some new features and optimizations, but using Vista's core technologies, device driver model, and kernel. This should provide good backward compatibility with Vista and prevent the hardware problems that plagued Vista's first year. Microsoft will also include some flashy new features to create some buzz. This past May, Bill Gates demonstrated a multi-touchscreen, iPhone-like technology that will be part of Windows 7.

So far, the two companies are on roughly similar schedules. Both have issued early releases to developers. At its Worldwide Developers Conference in June, Apple gave developers access to Snow Leopard Developer Preview 1, which is a pre-alpha-level build. Microsoft has delivered two early non-public Windows 7 previews, called M1 (for Milestone 1) and M2, to a select group of developers. Microsoft is currently internally testing an M3 version, according to WindowsIT Pro, and could be distributed to developers shortly, according to other reports.

But Microsoft's motivation for releasing Windows 7 sooner than later is more one of getting past Windows Vista than of keeping up with Apple. While the press and the market usually buy into Steve Job's claim of "the best Mac OS ever," few are saying that about Vista.

After years in development, Vista hit the market with a thud in January 2007. High hardware requirements, confusing array of options, and problems with the driver architecture sullied Vista's reputation. This year's Service Pack 1 fixed most of Vista's technical problems, but the damage to the Vista brand was already done. Add to that Apple's hammering Vista for almost two years with its Get a Mac TV campaign, which won Apple a Grand Effie award last year for the "Most Successful Marketing Campaign of 2007."

The success is seen in Apple's market share, which has grown to almost 8 percent, according to Net Applications. Additionally Macs sales in business have quadrupled in the past year and a half, and 80 percent of businesses say they own Macs. Snow Leopard's built-in Exchange features are likely to attract more enterprise customers.

To keep things in perspective, Vista's "unpopularity" still translates into 180 million copies sold, according to a July report from Microsoft. Ironically, Apple's success is also helping Microsoft, as some of these copies of Vista are running on Mac hardware using Boot Camp or virtualization software.

When Apple first announced Leopard, Steve Jobs claimed that it would be out before Vista shipped. Vista won that race, but it didn't help Microsoft. Apple is more likely to ship first this time around. Whoever comes out first, Microsoft will need to hit a homerun with Windows 7.

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Copyright 2008 John Rizzo. All rights reserved.