A few weeks ago, Apple Computer showed the world the next release of Max OS X, called Leopard. The company spent a lot of time talking about how well the current version of OS X stacks up against the unreleased next generation of Windows, called Vista, but the real story is Leopard itself.
Although Apple did not unveil every new feature in Leopard, it did give us a glimpse of what computing life will look like in the future. Once again, it appears that Apple has taken a leap over what Microsoft is offering.
Most of what Apple showed in its Leopard preview doesn't look dramatically different from its Tiger release at this point, but the operating system includes some notable enhancements and changes to the end-user experience that make it stand out. (And, yes, there are also some impressive things under the hood, such as the ability to seamlessly run 32-bit applications along with 64-bit applications. Anyone who went through the transition from 16- to 32-bit Windows knows this isn't easy to do.) But more important, Apple demonstrated some powerful new features that should have appeal to both business and consumer audiences.
Most impressive is the new Time Machine feature for backup and recovery. It may sound boring on paper, but when you see Time Machine in action, you begin to understand how powerful this application is. It's certainly the coolest software interface I've seen in a long time. When I saw the demo the first time, I smiled. Then I grinned. Then I laughed. Watching the audience during the keynote address, I saw a similar reaction.
Backup software is notably hard to work with and even harder to use for recovery; that's why most folks don't bother. Apple has finally put the onus on itself to provide end-users with the tool they need to protect their digital lives. As far as I'm concerned, this one alone is worth the price of admission.
The next few months will be very interesting. Vista isn't scheduled to ship until January 2007, and Leopard not until the [northern hemisphere] spring, and it's not fair to make a final judgment until both operating systems are released in final form. In the interim, the market will be taking a close look at how these new systems compare with each other in their beta and preview releases. No doubt, Apple and Microsoft are going to spend a lot of time and effort in the months ahead trying to win the hearts and minds of users.
Expect Microsoft to try to make a case for Vista while Apple talks up the currently shipping Tiger, which already has many of the features promised in Vista. The upcoming Leopard will likely be positioned as something for Apple customers to look forward to, with features, such as Time Machine, that won't be available in Vista.
This is an interesting moment in time, one in which Apple has an opportunity to gain some momentum. Now that its robust hardware can run Windows as well as Mac OS, Apple has begun to garner significant mind share over the past year. The company seems to be executing well both strategically and tactically, while Microsoft appears to be struggling to get Vista out the door.
And the interesting thing about mind share is that, over time, it tends to translate directly into market share.
Michael Gartenberg is vice-president and research director at Jupiter Research. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.