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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  • B3an - Sunday, February 19, 2012 - link

    Completely agree. I develop apps for other platforms but will never develop for OSX, it's obvious where things are heading here. And jumping through Apples hoops to get your app on iOS is a nightmare, so i've stopped that too.

    MS will have an App Store for Win 8 but thats just for Metro, and atleast it's easier to deal with and get your app on there, plus i cant ever see MS doing anything like this to desktop apps. If anything it gives MS even more reason not to, so developers and people have an alternative and a better option. Theres always Linux, but we all know that wont be going anywhere even near to 5% market share any time soon.
  • ex2bot - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    I think you misunderstand the signed applications option. They don't have to be in the Mac App Store, the developer just needs to pay Apple $100 for an ID.

    I love Apple! There awsome!

    Who do you love, microsoft? There awsom to! And much less evil than apple.

    And, by the way, this really is . . . the end.

    Mac Fanbot
  • GotThumbs - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Love? You appear to live outside of reality. An OS is a tool for accessing applications for work and entertainment, It's NOT a relationship. Either you prefer one OS over the other. That's your choice. Don't be disillusioned about what Apple and MS are...They are companies in the business to make money....and they are very good at marketing to consumers. Just don't drink the Cool-Aid.

    Best wishes
  • MobiusStrip - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - link

    Not to mention that it's ANOTHER $100, even if you've already paid for your developer membership for iOS. Lame.
  • ex2bot - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    They send me all that stuff for free. You know, inner circle (shhh!).
  • ex2bot - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    No, I prefer iced green tea. Slightly sweetened. Yum.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    The problem with your post is that developers don't need to sell through the App Store to benefit from Gatekeeper.

    Any applications that are from the App Store or signed with a developer certificate (the free one you get for registering with Apple) can be launched without any warning with Gatekeeper's default settings. If you want to launch an app that hasn't been signed then you either get a UAC style warning, or you can just turn Gatekeeper off globally.

    The entire point is that Apple wants to be able to blacklist developers who write malware. Mountain Lion does a check of that blacklist once a day. Without this security method, Apple can only blacklist app identifiers, which take 5 seconds to change, and even malware can adapt to work around that (simply hijack safe identifiers). But there is no easy way for malware to hijack other developer's certificates because they are encrypted like any other security certificate is.

    In one fell swoop Apple gains control of easily blocking malware, all while making it brain-dead simple for developers since they can be whitelisted without even needing to release their software through the App Store (your concern).

    If a developer chooses not to get on the whitelist, they can still release their software and users (the same ones technically savvy enough to turn off Gatekeeper or manually dismiss it per application) can install it themselves. They'd just get a UAC style warning like they do right now if they want to manually dismiss it.

    Lots of worry about nothing.
  • repoman27 - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    "...If your non-Mac app store app doesn't have access APIs reserved only for those who distribute through the App Store than you are at a serious disadvantage thus you need to make a version for the app store.

    Doing so you basically scar your customers who buy directly, basically forcing you to give Apple 30% and go through the app store."

    The API's that require Mac App Store distribution are the ones that use Apple's servers. I don't think it's a mystery as to why they want a bit of the action in return for this privilege.

    As was noted in the article, the developer can just produce a small add-on module for the Mac App Store if they want to leverage the reserved API's. If they make the add-on free, they only have to pay Apple $99 annually. No one gets "scarred" in the process.

    Gatekeeper is merely an attempt at protecting users from their own actions. It's not much different than Windows User Account Control—just another way to deal with the age old problem of giving administrative privileges to the accounts that many people use 100% of the time. If Apple came out with an OS that didn't allow the end user to have elevated privileges at all, that would be much more sinister (like iOS).
  • kmmatney - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - link

    The App store is good for a majority of people. I have to admit that when I try Linux, I always have trouble installing Apps, and the "App Store", or Software Center is by far the easiest way to get Apps installed. I remember trying to run Linux without centralized application management, and it was a nightmare for me, as least for a Linux noob like me.
  • MobiusStrip - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - link

    Holding Linux software installation out as any kind of comparison is ludicrous. A much better example would be Windows, which has had excellent installers for many years. It has also had UNINSTALLERS, which OS X inexplicably still lacks after a decade.

    Double-clicking to launch an installer is plenty "elegant" and has been understood even by noobs for many years. Ignoring that fact is a weak strawman.

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