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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  • Death666Angel - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    I am not an Apple buyer, so I don't use OS X. I've seen it on he MacBook and tried it for 5 minutes and couldn't get anything to work. ^^ I'm sure it works for a lot of people, though.

    What I found a bit odd in your conclusion was that there is competition in the OS space. I really don't see that. As long as Apple doesn't open OS X up to non-Apple PCs, OS X is not a competition to Windows. The Mac sales in the US may look quite good, but world wide, OS X doesn't really play a role, as far as I know. I'd like to try OS X again, but I'm not going to cough up the money for an Apple PC to do it. :-)
  • colonelclaw - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    I take care of a lot of Macs for friends and family. As an unscientific observation, those who have older hardware (some up to 10 years old, but mostly 4+ years old) don't care about not having the latest OS. Those on the newer hardware are always bugging me to 'upgrade' their systems (i.e put on Lion and everything Adobe makes for free).
    Consequently I would say not supporting older hardware is not a big deal. There seem to be 2 types of computer user in this world, those who want the latest and greatest of everything, and those who just don't care as long as it works.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Since you take care of those, you should make sure that everyone is running the latest software, if only to ensure that everyone is as secure as they can be. Newer OS isn't just for added features, it is also to close bugs, exploits etc. People not wanting newer software because their current one runs good enough are the same people who will get their credit card maxed by thieves.
  • nortexoid - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Quibble: there's a section titled "Unsupported Macs" and then a list of Macs just below that. If one doesn't read the paragraph above (and there's no reason to think they *ought* to), one will be confused by the list.
  • Andrew.a.cunningham - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Then it's a good thing you read the paragraph above, right? I mean, what are we all here for, if not to exchange information using words?
  • Andrew.a.cunningham - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Sarcasm aside, though, your point is well-taken, and I tweaked the subhead. :-)
  • repoman27 - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Neither the original article nor any of the user comments I read pointed out an obvious benefit of shifting the distribution of widely adopted apps to "App Store" models—namely a more unified software update interface. I fired up a client's MacBook the other day just to change a few system settings and configure her email client with a new account. Because she had only lightly used the machine in the past few weeks, I was confronted with 5 different auto-update dialogs in the space of 20 minutes. Most Windows machines I see have about a dozen startup processes or services designed to check for software updates automatically on top of Microsoft Update. For many small businesses that don't maintain dedicated update servers, have legacy equipment or less than stellar internet connections, the only option is to disable automatic update checking for virtually everything and then periodically perform manual updates of all the software on each machine.

    I kinda like the iOS way, where every now and then when I'm at home and on WiFi, I glance at my home screen, and I can see a little red badge on the App Store icon with a number telling me how many apps have available updates. I can peruse them first, then tap "Update All" and be done with it. It really should be this easy on PC's as well (and even better if you could just as easily roll back an app to a prior installed version if the update breaks something.) Apple providing a very low overhead push notification server that any developer can use to notify their users of updates, and a centralized way of downloading and installing those updates is one step closer to things just working the way they should.

    In a previous comment, someone made the analogy to the changes the automotive industry has undergone in the past 30-40 years. I use this analogy all the time. For a while people lamented the perceived loss of ability to maintain their own cars, but the tradeoff is that most people drive vastly more reliable vehicles than they did a few decades ago and don't miss changing a water pump themselves one bit. I for one really hope that personal computers get to the point where they "just work" the way cars do these days. And despite the more proprietary nature of cars nowadays, the tinkerers and those that perform their own repairs are certainly far from extinct—they just had to acquire different tools and skill sets.

    As for software developers not wanting to give Apple 30% of the retail take, unless they primarily sell directly and can scale well with demand, they often sacrifice more than that to whatever distribution channels they do use. In most instances (i.e. for the most popular apps), those not buying volume licenses (which aren't yet available for non-Apple apps in the Mac App Store anyway) tend to buy from a discount retailer. Between the discounted price and the fact that the retailer is taking a cut, we can deduce that the publisher has probably wholesaled the license at 70% or less of full retail.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Considering the kind of information my internet-machine has on me versus my car, I don't really see how they stack up. I don't want Apple or Microsoft or Google turning their OS into another Facebook.
  • repoman27 - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    Many cars already have embedded GPS and mobile communication hardware, microphones and cameras and other sensors. Some new models are touting built in Wi-Fi. Once you start browsing pron from you car, there really won't be much difference.

    And I don't really see how app stores could turn an OS into Facebook. Apple, Microsoft and Google all provide browsers, Microsoft and Google have search engines, and Apple has iTunes. I'm not sure what they'll learn about you from an OS level app store that they don't already know.
  • Death666Angel - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - link

    So, you store passwords, private information, handle money transactions through your car? If you don't see how a machine to enter the internet and community with the world is different from a vehicle, you clearly are not living on my plane of existence.

    As for the Facebook, you were saying that we should just let the companies run these black boxes and not worry about it. But I see that this would give these companies a chance to gather ever more information from us. Your argument that they already have stuff to gather such information isn't anything contrary to my stance.

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