Behind the scenes at Macworld Expo, developers have mostly good things to say about OS X 10.6, called "Snow Leopard." While details may emerge during Tuesday's keynote presentation, the biggest question mark is the cost of the update.
One developer wondered about Snow Leopard's marketing: "From a marketing point of view, if you call something 'Leopard' and the next version is 'Snow Leopard,' then that [latter version] has to be free. Maybe [Apple can charge] a slight bump, but not a $99 upgrade."
(All of the developers requested their discussion be without attribution.)
Another developer agreed that Snow Leopard would be a "tough sell" as an update. However, the cost question was important to developers' plans and for customer support.
"Will it be it free, or a $29 update? That answer will define on our end whether we can use any [new] APIs and how we will continue to support Leopard and Tiger."
A third developer at the table said that Apple's framing of the Snow Leopard update may provide a clue.
Since 2001, Mac OS X has delivered more than a thousand innovative new features. With Snow Leopard, the next major version of the world’s most advanced operating system, Mac OS X changes more than its spots, it changes focus. Taking a break from adding new features, Snow Leopard — scheduled to ship in about a year — builds on Leopard’s enormous innovations by delivering a new generation of core software technologies that will streamline Mac OS X, enhance its performance, and set new standards for quality. Snow Leopard dramatically reduces the footprint of Mac OS X, making it even more efficient for users, and giving them back valuable hard drive space for their music and photos.
The developer suggested that under accounting rules, Apple must charge for adding new features into its OS software. However, if there are few new features, then there will be no obligation for this revenue recognition.
Since the "features" found in the Snow Leopard update won't be directly accessible by end users and will be additions under the hood for third-party developers, Apple may not need to charge for it or charge a lot.
The context for this speculation happened just over a year ago, when iPod Touch users were charged $19.95 for the Mail, Maps, Stocks, Weather, and Notes applications that had been part of the iPhone software update. Since the Touch is a standalone device without a subscription like the iPhone, Apple need to account for the software update differently and charge Touch users for the update.
Some developers have described Snow Leopard to me as just a big batch of bug fixes, and the developers I met with offered examples that could support that hypothesis. For example, one company said that Apple was finally getting around to dealing with some pre-Leopard fixes in Snow Leopard.
However, they were upbeat about this progress, and the reaction of Apple to its developers, especially when compared with the level of communication from Microsoft on Vista bugs. Several developers had Windows products as well as Mac. They said that Microsoft was like a black hole when it came to communication over bug reports.
"Apple wants to get all the stuff sorted out and get us the best OS. This communication [from Apple] is really important to us," one said.