Snow Leopard's Early Release Chills Windows 7

Tomorrow's release of the next version of Mac OS X, also known as Snow Leopard, is by all accounts a minor update with few new user features. Even Apple calls most of the changes in the OS UI refinements that will occur "under the hood."

snow leopard
Yet Snow Leopard is a major release in the sense that it could take the wind out of Windows 7's sails. The August 28 launch of Snow Leopard was originally supposed to take place in September. Either way, Apple has missed back-to-school buyers, but the sudden rescheduling is a tactic aimed at rival Microsoft, say industry analysts.

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Rob Enderle, president of tech consulting firm The Enderle Group, says that Apple's rescheduling of Snow Leopard's release could put Microsoft in a vulnerable position.

"Apple will now get nearly two months to market their offering, which is in market, against Windows 7, which is not in market," Enderle says.

He predicts that the Snow Leopard hype will pass once Windows 7 ships on Oct. 22, but "until then it will hurt Microsoft in terms of measured market share."

Not surprisingly, Microsoft disputes that view. Windows Product Marketing Director Jay Paulus contends that Snow Leopard's rescheduling is minor news and will not affect Microsoft's timetable with Windows 7.

"I don't think the notion that Snow Leopard's early release will make Windows 7 look late will stick," Paulus says. "It's more likely Apple have a short span where they were in market first, albeit on a much more limited set of hardware, but that will fade pretty fast."

Two OSes, Two Different Goals

Though both Snow Leopard and Windows 7 are maintenance releases and offer fairly easy upgrades from previous versions, the OSes come from very different places.

Windows 7 has much more pressure on it to succeed, since its predeccesor, Windows Vista, was arguably the most criticized version of the Windows OS ever. Snow Leopard, in contrast, takes over for Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5), which was quite popular with the Apple base.

"Apple is cruising along at a lofty altitude," says veteran analyst Roger Kay. "Snow Leopard is a minor release, but Windows 7 is a major one, and Microsoft has a long slog in front of it to re-establish Windows."

Tim Bajarin, president of consulting firm Creative Strategies, agrees that Snow Leopard and Windows 7 have different objectives and that Microsoft is carrying the bigger burden.

"The main focus of Snow Leopard is to update UI features, speed up Safari and provide solid support for Exchange Server 2007," Bajarin says. "But the goal with Windows 7 is to take a lot of the confusing UI problems out of Vista, as well as the heavy memory demands, and make the OS easier to use."

Enderle says an even bigger challenge facing Windows 7 is that it is a major upgrade from Vista's predeccesor Windows XP, an OS that many users, particularly enterprises, are content to keep.

"There is much more heavy lifting here for Microsoft than for Apple. But as a result, the accomplishment will be seen as greater should Windows 7 succeed," he says.

The Price Factor

Apple has been touting Snow Leopard's reduced price of $29 for a single-user license, and $49 for a five-license pack. Apple traditionally charges $129 for an operating system upgrade.

Windows 7 pricing is more complicated. There was a discounted pre-order offer from June 26 through July 11 where buyers could order Windows 7 Home Premium for $49.99 or Windows 7 Professional for $99.99.

Upgrades to Windows 7 will be free to people who buy certain PCs with Vista pre-installed between now and Jan. 31, 2010. Those free upgrades are scheduled to start when Windows 7 ships on Oct. 22. Otherwise, retail upgrade prices for Windows 7 are set at $119.99 for Home Premium, $199.99 for Professional and $219.99 for Ultimate.

With an earlier release and cheaper price tag than Windows 7, Apple is instigating a price war from which it will likely benefit, says Bajarin.

"If users compare Snow Leopard to Windows 7, Apple's pricing will be a thorn in Microsoft's flesh," he says.

But Enderle points out that the price difference between Snow Leopard and Windows 7 has some false perceptions. "Apple is subsidizing its software with pricier hardware. Windows 7 configured hardware should be vastly less expensive because Windows OEMs operate at much thinner margins than Apple," he says.

Two-Month Window for Apple

If it is Apple's intention to take the spotlight off Windows 7 with the rescheduling of Snow Leopard, then it may have enough time to steal some of Windows 7's marketing thunder and possibly goad some PC users into buying a Mac.

"This is a good time for Apple to crank up their switch campaign," says Bajarin.

Enderle adds that it's unlikely that Microsoft will let "Apple run free for 60 days, so Redmond's response should be interesting to watch."

Microsoft's Paulus insists that there will be no response. The company will not be altering any of its Windows 7 timetable or marketing plans or cut prices. "All our Windows 7 plans are chugging forward," he says.

Bajarin predicts that, despite Apple buying itself some time, Windows 7 will still be successful, mostly because of the percieved failure of Vista and desire among Windows users for something better.

"Apple can try to use this transition time to get Windows users to switch, but Microsoft's domination in the PC market will continue to be strong with Windows 7," he says.

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