Apple's Leopard/Leoptard Problem: It's Time to Rethink the OS

Rob Enderle

The folks at Microsoft think Apple has it easy because Apple can limit the amount of hardware it supports and can contain the development process until the last minute so no one knows what is cut.


With the release of Leopard, which I personally thought was going to be a hit, Apple demonstrated that things -- even for it -- aren't that easy. Leopard picked up a new nickname, which is permeating the Web -- "Leoptard." I'm not sure if that applies to the platform or the poor fool who upgraded to it, but this product is being compared to Windows Vista and not in the expected good way.


While it would be a kick to make fun of Apple and point to the current Windows vs. Mac OS campaign as just a little bit hypocritical and embarrassing -- which I guess I just did -- let's instead focus on what seems to be wrong-headed about PC operating systems, and a lot of PC applications, in general.


In the Beginning


Someplace we got off track. In the beginning, the operating system was light, booted fast, and actually rather reliable. Then we went crazy with hardware, drivers, applications that drilled down into hardware, and built up so much complexity that the fact that this stuff works at all, let alone can run for weeks, amazes me.


If you recall the Commodore and Atari days, you basically booted the system into what felt like an embedded OS and then either inserted a floppy disk or a cartridge with your applications and off you went. Viruses on those systems would have been difficult because you had to physically load them (this was pre-Internet and networking for the most part), and while some eventually could go online, the services they connected to like CompuServe and old AOL were relatively safe.


Basically a 4-year-old could get these things to work, and while they didn't do anywhere near what a current system can do, back then you used nearly 100 percent of what you bought. I'll bet you don't use 20 percent of what you now have.


I just had a vendor in trying to do a pitch with Leopard. First, networking wouldn't work, then he rebooted and it took forever (of course I'm giving him grief the entire time). Finally he was up and running, but admitted he was very sorry he upgraded from Tiger. Given the number of Vista users who have expressed the same thoughts, I think it is well past time to revisit a happier past.


iPhone Back to the Future


A lot of my friends have iPhones. One was explaining the other day how his 4-year-old figured out how to use the iPhone in a few minutes. While an iPhone is limited. Once again most folks seem to be able to use most features. That isn't true of most phones, particularly smartphones today, although that, too, wasn't always the case, and it clearly isn't true of PCs.


I think the iPhone captures a core concept lost in the '80s that we need to get back: true simplicity and ensuring people use the majority of what they buy.


Both the Mac OS and Vista have simply become too complex to implement and use. That likely goes to the core of why both have had such painful births this round.


Unlike the iPhone, which was a start-from-scratch product, both the MacOS and Windows have a long legacy that will be difficult to abandon. But it is possible for both to do it.


Apple may have the advantage here because it has been slowly displacing third-party developers, and with iLife, iWork, and Safari has what amounts to a good core application set and could better contain the initial experience. Both Linux and Windows are all over the map here, making it a bit more difficult with existing platforms. But nothing is preventing an OEM from creating a system based on embedded Windows or Linux, a simplified UI and a set of core applications to improve their customer experience.


Hypervisor and Online Services to the Rescue


While it would seem obvious to say that using technology for us, rather than against us, the next time around would seem to make the most sense, I wonder if many OS engineers actually get this. PCs should run in three modes:



  • Entertainment mode, where it can be like a media center. This mode may be up 24/7 but needs to conserve power and behave like an appliance.
  • Performance mode, where only one application -- a game, photo or movie editor, or scientific application -- needs all the resources available. And ...
  • Productivity mode, where a variety of commercially purchased applications might reside.
The entertainment partition would be locked down by the OEM and updated only when the proper trust relationship was present. This would allow security software to run there as well and create the opportunity to scan the other two partitions fully without the fear of malware like rootkits destroying the integrity of the scan.


The other two partitions would be connected to online services, which would remember the purchased applications and restore them should a system wipe or hard-drive crash catastrophically occur. Some of the less-used applications could actually reside on the Web and install themselves on the fly and only as needed. For instance, do you really need an income tax program to run locally most of the time?


Phoenix Technology, among others, is starting to create solutions that will work against some of this model, but I wonder if it can make this happen without the OS owners' direct help.


Wrapping Up


The iPhone is a semi-locked down embedded OS device and it is, even in its first limited iteration, an incredibly easy product to learn and use. This approach is the model to follow if we are to avoid problems like those enjoyed by Leoptard, er Leopard, and Vista, and create some real excitement around future hardware and software.


Now Vista SP1 is starting to test out much better, and I expect Leopard will be getting patched up in a few weeks (I'm really starting to wonder if Apple has lost too many good people), but I think we need to make some major changes going forward.


We as an industry need to create products that generally will pass the 4-year-old test. And, until we do, we'll miss out on the kind of blind excitement that surrounded products like the original Palm Pilot, the original iPod, the Commodore 64 (which outsold Microsoft and Apple in its time) and the iPhone. In fact, the iPhone and the Kindle likely come closer to the ideal and, unless something is done to prevent it, I'll bet both products become less ideal over time.


Something to ponder on this cold December day: Maybe this year, for the holidays, the vendors should think about putting a little childhood wonder in their products and take out a lot of the adult complexity. Microsoft's Zune II, Surface, and Home Server all represent solid moves in this direction, and Apple's iPhone sets a stunning example of how things should be as well. Let's hope the folks use these as an example going forward and put a little more magic, and a lot less aggravation, into future operating systems and applications.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Dec 11, 2007 9:57 AM Ken Hardin Ken Hardin  says:
Hi, Rob -- a couple questions for you:A) When you say "trust relationship" for entertainment software, won't most vendors (for example, Apple) tend to swing that toward "preferred relationship," a la iTunes?B) Are users really frustrated with the usability of Vista and (particularly) Leopard, or is it simply performance issues tied to all that legacy base? Leopard got glowing reviews before it got out into the wild and started acting all wonky, yes? Reply
Dec 11, 2007 2:02 PM JAhrends JAhrends  says:
I am confused at the reports of problems. I have several macs in the house. I have not had any of the problems that I have been hearing about on any of them. I still have the occasional 3rd party app that decides it doesnt want to play well. Unlike windows when this happens you would not know it if you werent in that app because it does not bring the whole system to its knees.I have been very happy with my macs. I would not willingly switch back to Windows. In fact I stopped using my company supplied laptop and bought a MacBook Pro. Many of my friends are slowly moving over to the light side.If you like windows more power to you but I for one can't believe that Leopard could ever sink as low on the reliability scale that the Windows OS has achieved. Reply
Dec 11, 2007 4:47 PM Mike Mike  says:
I'm here to say that I've nothing but good luck with Leopard. It is great; very stable and no problems to speak of, except that I refuse to upgrade parallels 2.0 at the moment and that sometimes crashes (which is a known issue with v. 2.0 and Leopard). I really don't get this. Networking, internet, everything is sooooo much easier than XP (never used vista). Macs have brought the fun back into computing for me. It is, of course, not perfect, but it is easily the best thing out there. IMHO. Reply
Dec 11, 2007 4:52 PM Mike Mike  says:
One more comment: I was a big fan of the Vic20, C64 and the Amiga. The Mac is similar in overall feeling to those. Another major boost for the mac: I've had much better luck with 3rd party software. That may be in part because there is so much less to choose from, it tends to be easy to find a good, stable product. I've been a PC programmer for 10 years or so and on the platform since MSDOS days; I'll never go back. Reply
Dec 13, 2007 10:12 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Hey Ken:On point one the trust relationship needs to be to more than just media, too much crap is coming in from supposedly trusted sites and breaking these systems (Windows for now but the same methods could work on the Mac).Both Vista and Leopard got initial strong reviews and then went downhill from there with folks dropping back to XP and Tiger. In both cases this seems to be a large vocal minority but it was still too much breakage. Complaints range from crashes to being really slow in both cases as well. (Which is why the two are being compared). On Mac vs. Vista comments, I've been on Vista since the final Beta and run a lot of systmes. Most, particulalry the laptops, have been flawless, the only painful issue has been game performance and that got better during the SP1 beta. A lot of people have had good luck with Vista as well, but clearly not everyone for either platform. Reply
Dec 19, 2007 4:50 PM Roland Hesz Roland Hesz  says:
I agree with JAhrends."I am too confused at the reports of problems. I have two Vistas (and two XPs) in the house. I have not had any of the problems that I have been hearing about on any of them. I still have the occasional 3rd party app that decides it doesnt want to play well. Fortunately, when this happens you would not know it if you werent in that app because it does not bring the whole system to its knees."Seriously, the more complex these OS-es get, the more trouble they will meet. Reply
Jan 1, 2008 5:38 PM vinayaka vinayaka  says:
haaaaaaaaaaaaaa... Reply

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