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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  • steven75 - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    "But my 10 year old needs to understand computers properly"

    And why, exactly, is that?

    Will you require her to build her own car, slaughter her own meat, assemble her own furniture?
  • bji - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Is it really possible that so many people can't see the difference in the expected benefit of having deep technical knowledge of computers versus knowing how to build a car, slaughter a cow, or build furniture?

    Seriously - are you living in 1912 or 2012? I personally live in 2012 and can readily see the benefit of technical knowledge.

    Furthermore, experience with building/programming computers is fairly easy to impart when a) the parent is already interested in and knowledgeable about them, and b) it is an easily accessible, "clean" topic of study. We can easily teach our children about computers, it is much harder for a whole variety of reasons to give them hands-on experience with car manufacturing or cow slaughtering.

    I imagine that there are in fact some carpenters for whom the last suggestion - furniture assembly - is a reasonable thing to try to teach their children, but those people are probably underrepresented here. But I would not begrudge them a desire to pass their knowledge onto their children either, although I suspect those of you in the deliberately-obtuse crowd would.
  • solipsism - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Is it really possible that so many people can't see the difference in the expected benefit of having deep technical knowledge of computers versus only having a computer if you've built it yourself?
  • bji - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Although your comment doesn't make any sense as written, I'll assume you meant to point out that you don't have to force someone to build their own computer as the only way to help them to learn about computers.

    Nobody said that building your own computer is the *only* way to learn about computers; but the burden of proof would be on you if you are suggesting that it isn't a good way to get some knowledge about how computers work and what they are made of.
  • cjs150 - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    If all children are taught is to use certain software packages, for example Word, you are not teaching computing but merely a more modern version of a typist course. Children deserve and need to learn more because they will be the next generation of programmers, system designers, graphic designers etc

    Yes children should learn about how the meat they eat is farmed, the slaughtering techniques, hygenie issues. Actually slaughtering animals is probably off the agenda in a inner city school though!

    I believe that assembling her own furniture would get taught in woodworking (or whatever the course is called now), although that covers a bit more as well. And she did (with help) assemble her own flat pack book case
  • Conficio - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - link

    As a father, I'd only remark that you should carefully weigh if your daughter has an interest in building a computer.

    Nothing wrong with teaching your kids a subject where you are an expert. Just they have to be motivated.

    School teachers these days (not much to their fault) are not experts in anything they teach. In a modern (city or Internet connected) world there are always better writers, critical thinkers, mathematicians, biologists, farmers, woodworkers, typists, etc. in easy reach. It used to be 100 - 150 years ago that a teacher was one of the elite (besides the mayor, priest, doctor and lawyer in town) based on his/her academic training and ability to read/write and have some understanding of the world beyond the village boundaries. The world has changed often you find among the parents alone way more expertise in most subjects taught.

    Anyhow in most cases teachers do not and can not stretch the knowledge of their pupils into current expertise in almost any field. So being able to teach some of this yourself is a good thing.

    However, you got to see that at the end of the day you are not imposing your own desires and like onto your child. Because that won't help and make the child only feel misunderstood by its parents. Have an eye of the fact that it is not so much about what you learn, but more to what level of effort (and academic abstraction) you learn it. That is what teaches you how to learn any kind of complex subject and that is the skill that sustains you in life (besides social abilities and [self] motivation).
  • FWCorey - Tuesday, May 1, 2012 - link

    "As a father, I'd only remark that you should carefully weigh if your daughter has an interest in building a computer.

    Nothing wrong with teaching your kids a subject where you are an expert. Just they have to be motivated."

    Part of being a parent and helping your child to develop is giving them knowledge of a broad range of subjects. Just because something the have no knowledge of doesn't interest them, doesn't mean that might not change once they've been given a little experience with it. And if it doesn't change, at least they can honestly tell themselves it's an informed choice.

    We should all have at least a little knowledge of a wide range of topics anyway, whether they appeal to us or not for the simple practical reason of communication with others who do. You also never know when a tidbit of info from some other topic can help you see something you ARE interested in from another perspective.
  • suprem1ty - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - link

    Theres nothing wrong with providing some education.

    Especially when said education (computing) is so important and fundamental to our current society.

    If I had a child I would want to make sure that they were well educated when it came to things I found important; it's not until they're old enough to choose for themselves that I would let them "take their own path" as it were.
  • cyabud - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    "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."

    Apple hasn't removed any features from Mountain Lion that prevent you from fiddling with settings or adding programs that genuinely extend or enhance your working experience.

    I am a power user running OS X, Windows and Ubuntu on multiple machines/VMs. All three systems offer plenty of configuration options (from a client perspective, as oppose to server) and third party software to do pretty much anything I want from any system I choose.

    Sure, AirPlay Mirroring is 720p only for now but don't act like alternatives don't exist... My copy of Lion is running a DLNA server streaming 1080p video to my Samsung blu-ray player without issue.
  • KPOM - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Windows 8 ARM will be an even tighter walled garden than Mountain Lion. It will be like iOS, actually. Apps will be available exclusively from the Windows Store.

    I think computers have started to arrive where cars have been for the last 20 years or so. They are complex appliances that are turnkey to the end-user. Most of us don't know how to tinker with our cars the way people did back in the early days (or as late as the 1970s and 1980s).

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