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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  • Jaybus - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - link

    Well, I think that if they go that route, then they will find themselves in court, just as Microsoft did. Embedding APIs available only to App Store apps is almost identical to Microsoft embedding Internet Explorer primitives into Windows. It is an unfair trade practice, and the DOJ will be all over it seeking a hefty fine to line the DOJ lawyers pockets.
  • InsaneScientist - Sunday, February 19, 2012 - link

    Awesome preview as always, guys!

    A little niggle that has been bugging me for some time, I've just never gotten around to mentioning it: When you have an article with multiple authors that includes personal opinion (ie. things that are written first person) could you provide some indication of who wrote which sections? I'm pretty sure I've seen it from time to time in the past, but it's not consistent.
    I'm just OCD enough that I'm always wondering which person's opinion I'm reading at a particular point in time.

    With that out of the way, a random question: Does 10.8 support the ability to pause and resume file copies? I've actually found that I use that feature in the Windows 8 developer preview a LOT more than I would have thought.

    I also find it interesting that they seem to be simultaneously trying to make OS X server more consumer friendly (such as the management options for iOS devices) whilst making it so that it can't be the only server on a network by (potentially?) removing DHCP. Any insights into the contradiction?
  • Malih - Sunday, February 19, 2012 - link

    exactly, I think many readers wonder who is "I" on one particular section of the article.
  • Kristian Vättö - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Unfortunately, you cannot pause a file transfer in the current developer preview :-(
  • Mr. S - Sunday, February 19, 2012 - link

    "... Mountain Lion is dropping support for any Mac that is not capable of booting OS X's 32-bit kernel."

    I think you mean 64-bit.
  • Andrew.a.cunningham - Sunday, February 19, 2012 - link

    Yup! Fixed.
  • MonkeyPaw - Sunday, February 19, 2012 - link

    My concern with aggressive OS releases is that of support. While I think iOS does a better job than Android when it comes to mobile unity, Apple has been notorious for dropping "old" desktop models from its support list. These aren't cheap pieces of hardware, nor are they useless as everyday machines on the day Apple drops them. While you can continue to run old versions of OS X on these machines, will security and stability updates continue? Will Apple will find that people are using anywhere from 10.6 to 10.10 in 3 years? Seems like it will get fragmented, which, as MS can tell you, is a nightmare. Sure Apple can just end support of "old" versions of OS X, but that has its risks. Will software developers keep up? What if people choose to stay on a given version because they don't want to upgrade?

    Don't get me wrong. I want to like Apple's products. I've owned Macs before back in the PPC days, and I have an iPhone 4 (work-issue). The hardware is top notch, and I like OS X for the most part. It's Apple's business practices that I just can't get on board with. I just wonder how many more people there are that feel this way that elude Apple's sales. Apple reap billions already, so maybe they are just fine with not having people like me as customers.
  • HunterKlynn - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Well, for dropping old hardware I kind of understand it, and if anything I think they're trying to reduce fragmentation. Right now, they're basically saying "it's time for 32 bit to just go away forever" which is a mindset I can easily get behind. That and requiring everyone to have OpenCL support which also is a matter of bringing the platform in line.

    I would assume an annual release cycle would have a reduced list of dropped hardware since A) things won't have changed quite so much and B) the two major changes in hardware types have been covered by the requirements on Mountain Lion.
  • name99 - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - link

    What exactly is your complaint? That's the part I don't understand.

    Apple has a very clear policy on security updates; and even when they stop providing them, chances are that your system is secure enough that it's not big deal.
    So you are upset that you bought a computer and Apple will stop providing new software for it seven years later?

    If you still want to use your slow computer seven years after Apple stopped supporting it, go ahead and do so --- it will still work. I have a PPC laptop I use as server running 10.5, and a 1st gen Intel laptop running 10.6. I don't bitch and whine about how they can't run newer OSs because what's the big freaking deal? They still work every bit as well as they did last year and the year before that. You come across as a guy who buys a car then complains that he has to buy gas every so often.

    Maintaining backward compatibility forever is not free --- just ask MS. Forcing backward compatibility introduces bugs and makes it that much more difficult to add new features or improved algorithms. To take an obvious example --- if (when?) Apple introduce a new file system, it's a whole lot easier if they can just assume that it runs only on 64-bit machines and that they can cleanly use 64-bit integers and even 64-bit assembly where-ever they need to. (And don't tell me that compilers can support 64-bit longs transparently on a 32-bit machine --- yes they can, but not atomic operations on 64-bit longs.)

    And it's not like Apple have made these decisions randomly. Dropping PPC, then dropping Intel 32-bit support are both obvious decisions that allow the company to concentrate on moving forward rather than constantly being slowed down by the past.
    The good news is that, for the most part, it's over now. The obvious future transitions are
    - drop ALL 32-bit code support (maybe coming in Mountain Lion even)
    - drop Carbon
    at which point ideally Apple has the energy to move forward with one OS and one runtime a whole lot faster.

    On the other hand, we are going to see, soon enough, the transition to 64-bit iOS. Expect a whole lot of bitching at that point from people who are upset that Apple won't support their iPad2 for the rest of time.
  • B3an - Sunday, February 19, 2012 - link

    It's very obvious that this faster release cycle is in response to Windows 8. All the massive changes and improvements in W8 obviously have Apple worried. Especially with all the upcoming W8 tablets that will cut in to iPad sales. And unlike Mountain Lion which wont run on older Apple hardware, W8 will run on most PC's that can run the decade old XP, because as a benefit of all the performance optimisations for tablets i've managed to get Win 8 to run atleast as good as XP on laptops that are over 7 years old and only have 512MB RAM.

    And correct me if i'm wrong, but i dont remember seeing any article like this mentioning the new stuff within the Windows 8 Dev Preview when it came out late last year. Win 8 is a FAR bigger change and update than Mountain Lion, yet there was nothing like this article. I know the Dev Preview was missing many features but still disappointing.

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