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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  • FWCorey - Tuesday, May 1, 2012 - link

    And what makes games so much less relevant on a platform that has more consumer users than commercial users?
    Windows has given them a high priority for ages despite the fact that OS's demographic balance swings in the opposite direction.
  • marioyohanes - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Thanks for extensive review on the new upcoming OS X Mountain Lion.

    Since you guys are the most reliable sources for SSD, I was wondering whether OS X Mountain Lion has better support for SSD or not, specifically with 3rd party SSD?

    I have 2 different SSDs, Intel 320 and Vertex 3 installed on both 2011 MBP and 2009 MBP, and it always gets corrupted right after OS X update or Safari update under Mac OS X Lion (never have this problem on SL).

    I really hope Mountain Lion could brings better support for 3rd party SSD than it does on Lion. Because why bother buying new hardware if you'll get stuck with 5400 rpm hdd :)
  • vectorm12 - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Considering Apple would much rather charge you 500+ USD for a 256GB SSD that's a decent performer at best I'd say we're out of luck on any kind of support on 3:rd party SSDs. In fact I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Apple in fact chose to limit booting from 3:rd party storage in the near future.

    Interesting about your Vertex 3 being corrupted after OS X updates. I've been running Lion for the better part of a month on my early '11 13" macbook pro I have for work with a Vertex3 Max IOPS and haven't seen any real issues thus far.

    I do however see intermittent slowdown at times which I've thus far figured to be TRIM related. Especially when waking the system from sleep/hibernation. Perhaps I've been to quick to jump to conclusions about those issues?

    All in all I see where Apple wants to take OSX and their platforms in general, but I can't help but pray people won't keep accepting all the limitations since it's really bad for all consumers in the long run.

    Otherwise we'll be running IOS 8 on mac hardware and being forced to jailbreak new mac pros as well.
  • KPOM - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    From what I have seen on the developer preview, it does not. I'm assuming the hacks still work, but I haven't tried them. My guess is that we'll see the MacBook Pro line either merge with the Air or become less user-upgradable in the future (perhaps RAM will still be upgradable), at least in the 13" and 15" models, so I wouldn't bet on adding TRIM support for third party drives. I've heard that Apple makes as much or more money on NAND as the manufacturers of the NAND themselves.
  • zdzichu - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    First page discussing rapid release cycles fails to mention Linux distributions. Major distributions shifted to half-year release cycle few years ago (pioniereed by Fedora in 2003 and Ubuntu in 2004). This pace works very good for consumer software.
  • damianrobertjones - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    "Microsoft announced a planned shift to a 3-year OS release cadence."

    Didn't they previously have this 3 year release thing? Pretty sure that they did
  • cjs150 - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Actually I do not hate apple, it has a philosphy that does not work for me.

    Mountain Lion is clearly yet another step towards the walled garden approach that Apple wants. This approach will result in thinks that "just work", like any number of consumer electronic products. This is why many people at my work love Apple.

    But this approach has its downside, if all you want is something that "just works" then you do not need to know how it works and you are stuck with Apple's design decisions (eg no true HD on Apple TV). I want to know how things work, I want to be able to fiddle with settings, add programs that genuinely extend or enhance my working experience.

    A simple example. I have a young daughter (10) who is starting to ask for a computer in her bedroom. I have said that if she wants one and can explain why, she can have one but on the condition that it will arrive in bits and she will have to build it herself and install all the software. Admittedly this is a good parent trick to ensure the computer issue is deferred by at least 6 months, but assuming it happens it will teach my daughter very quickly how computers work, what bits are in a computer and how to install software and generally ticker with the computer. Apple take all that away - the computer should be simply a higher priced version of a washing machine - plug it in and away you go.
  • tim851 - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    What if your daughter wants a laptop?

    I've been managing my parents' PC for a while now. I could be a dick like you and tell them they have to do build it themselves, but I realized that not everybody is a nerd or has the time to become one and ultimately a PC is just an appliance like a fridge or a tv. I didn't make my mom assemble her car either.

    Next time you go into the supermarket to buy a steak, I hope they hand you a knife and point to a nearby cow.
  • bji - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    The obvious difference between your hypotheticals and his real situation is that he is the parent and its his responsiblity to educate his children and guide their development. It is not your responsibility to educate or guide your parents nor is it the responsibility of the supermarket to educate its customers on how cows are turned into steaks. There's no need to call cjs150 a dick just because you couldn't formulate this simple concept yourself.
  • vectorm12 - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    While I do agree with you for the most part I see a problem with "our" view of how things are supposed to work.

    The big issue is a lot of people want the "washing machine"-experience with computing devices. Heck even at times I do and it's something that is required at this point in my mind simply because most people choose the simplest/easiest way to get things done whenever possible. Most people simply choose rather not to use a function than actually learn how to use it.

    However I feel Apple as well as all others should provide a simple switch to disable to "walled garden" and expose the OS to people who choose to do so. In my mind that's the best of both worlds. Dumb it down for the people who couldn't care less, keep the techs happy who actually use and promote the devices.

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