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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  • macuser2134 - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    I have an important question about the Text-to-speech synthesizer that is included with OS X. Have they given it an independent volume control?

    This is coming from someone who is still on Snow Leopard. Whenever any 3rd party application invokes this feature - its always extremely lound at 100% the maximum volume. So unfortunately it never gets used for anything. But its such a great feature.
  • chemist1 - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - link

    My two principal concerns with the accelerated (yearly) release schedule are:

    1) In my experience, it takes nearly a year before each OSX release becomes fully useable -- i.e., it takes nearly a year before all my apps are updated, by the developers, to be *completely* compatible with the new OS (some of these are smaller developers with more limited resources), and likewise nearly a year before most of the bugs in the OS itself are worked out. So with the annual release schedule we lose that "sweet spot" second year when things are basically working well, and the OS and app developers can continue to refine and improve. Instead, all the focus will be redirected towards the new OS.

    2) Consider the case of expensive software like Adobe CS. Typically, a given version of Adobe CS is good for the current Mac OS and the next two or so (=> about six years when releases are biannual) before one starts to run into compatibility issues and thus needs to upgrade. With releases coming out annually, might this not cut the longevity of such software in half? Indeed, wouldn't this be a problem for your apps generally?
  • MobiusStrip - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - link

    "The Mountain Lion Finder, along with Lion additions... are at this point largely identical to their Lion counterparts."

    Apple's failure to fix this pathetic piece of garbage they call Finder is just disrespectful to their users at this point. If there is a single foil for all of the breathless fawning over Apple's mythical design "elegance", Finder is it.

    When you have a file browser that can't even sort its contents properly (with FOLDERS AT THE TOP), start searches in the selected folder, create subfolders in the selected folder, or present search results that show you WHERE each hit is... you have a failure.

    Whatever happened to the much-ballyhooed "rewrite" of Finder for SnowLeopard (or was it Leopard)?
  • repoman27 - Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - link

    I recognize that you're just trolling, and you don't appear to be a Mac user, but you do realize that the Finder already can do all of the things you listed? If you haven't been able to figure out how to do these things, the failure would seem to be a personal one and not on the part of the Finder.

    You seem very angry at Apple. Has Apple or its fans hurt you personally in some way?
  • Shinobi_III - Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - link

    Since forever, Mac OS has looked exactly the same..
    And now a new OS version every year, for 100 bucks or whatnot?

    These are basically just service packs, why is anyone even getting excited?

    BTW, did they add cut/paste yet? lol
  • snouter - Thursday, February 23, 2012 - link

    Apple will need to push/encourage 3rd parties to keep up with them.

    Adobe is notorious for taking their time with updates to newer Mac OSes.

    Canon, only a few weeks ago released EOS Utility for Lion.

    My Girlfriend bought some new $100 Samsung laser printer. No Lion drivers. I use dropbox to move files to my Windows computer so I can print them in 2012! There are CUPS hacks and stuff, but, meh.

    So with Mountain Lion on the way, will Adobe CS6 be ready? Will I have to go a year waiting for Canon to upgrade EOS Utility? I guess in 2012, I can just forget about printing, lol.

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