Snow Leopard, Marble, And Calamine Lotion

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screen-shot-2009-09-04-at-12716-amThere are two types of people in the world: Those that hate change, and those that embrace it. I tend to fall into the latter category. And that’s why OS X Snow Leopard is an odd product for me.

On one hand, I like the idea that Apple has decided to stick with something that is working so well (OS X Leopard), and make it lighter, faster and all-around better. On the other, it’s fairly hard to tell that you’re actually using something that is any different from the previous version. Yes, there are many little, subtle changes all over, but aside from maybe Quicktime X, there is nothing that immediately strikes you as being different. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a little disappointing to me.

New Spots?

OS X Leopard (again, the previous version) has been great, but as I said, I like change. I had been hoping for Apple to present me with something a little different after a couple years of Leopard. Instead, within a day of installing Snow Leopard, I found myself moving my dock from the bottom of my screen to the left-hand side, just to make me feel as if something had changed. This, of course, is something anyone can do in Leopard as well, but I’ve always been a bottom dock kind of guy — now I’m a left dock kind of guy, simply out of the need to make Snow Leopard feel different.

Obviously, Apple has known for a while that Snow Leopard really wouldn’t aesthetically be all that different from Leopard. While all the previous versions of OS X have had different big cat nicknames, 10.6 (Snow Leopard) is just a a different type of 10.5 (Leopard). And it’s been bracing both users and developers for the past year that Snow Leopard would not be a complete overhaul of the system, but rather a refinement of it.

And nothing speaks more to that than the price: $29. Given the amount of time (and presumably, the amount of work) put into it, it would seem that Apple would have every right to charge full price for Snow Leopard — something along the lines of $129. But Apple undoubtedly realized that without any major new consumer-facing functionality or aesthetic changes, it would be foolish to try and charge that much. Plenty of users are noting that Snow Leopard doesn’t feel all that much different, but the rationale behind getting it always seems to come back to: “But it’s only $29.”

Smart move, Apple.

Microsoft

45180188_07feb89bdcMy initial thought was that if Microsoft launched an OS update that looked and felt basically the same as the previous version, users would be up in arms much more than they are with Snow Leopard. But then I remembered that they’ve done this in the past also, it was called Windows 98.

Windows 98 really wasn’t all that different from Windows 95 from an end-user perspective, it was more of a fine-tuning of the system. Snow Leopard would seem to be Apple’s Windows 98. And if that’s the case, Apple would undoubtedly be happy as plenty of users consider Windows 98 to be a high point for Windows (well, Windows 98 SE, anyway).

But even Windows 98 came with a little cheat: Microsoft Plus. While not all versions had it, the add-on (which also was available for Windows 95, but different) added some themes and other front-end changes to Windows 98 to make it look different than the standard Windows 95 look-and-feel users may have been bored with.

Marble

And that’s why it’s surprising that Apple didn’t do something similar. At one point, it would seem that they intended to, by giving all OS X apps a new coat of paint, codenamed “Marble.” Basically, Marble was thought to be a darker version of the Brushed Metal look that OS X currently has. You can see what it may look like in certain Apple-made applications already in OS X, like Quicktime X, and parts of iPhoto and iTunes (the dark scroll bars).

So if Apple has somewhat implemented what seems to be part of it, why not go all Marble in Snow Leopard and give the users something new to look at? I’m not sure. Maybe they thought it was too dark, or maybe they’re saving it for OS X 10.7. But it’s a bit odd that the UI of the operating system is so fragmented. Especially when a unification could have quieted some of the front-end complaints.

Calamine Lotion

don-draper-finalNone of this is to say that Snow Leopard isn’t good. I’ve been using it for a few weeks now (the developer builds and now the final version), and aside from some frustrating bugs with WiFi and MobileMe, I like all of the small changes that Apple made. But again, from a user’s perspective, they’re small changes. We may see some fruits of the under-the-hood labor (64-bit and OpenCL) in the months and years to come, but right now, that’s a hard sell.

Don Draper has a great line in the first season of Mad Men, “The most important idea in advertising is ‘new’. It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion.” Apple created that itch by announcing a new OS, but I’m not sure that Snow Leopard is the calamine lotion that everyone was looking for. And Apple has taken a risk of sorts by releasing it this way. Especially on the verge of a major Windows overhaul with Windows 7 (which is to say, the version of Vista as it should be been made the first time).

As blogger Jason Kottke puts it, “People want to feel, emotionally speaking, that their money is well-spent and impeccable branding, funny commercials, and the sense of belonging to a hip lifestyle that Apple tries to engender in its customers can only go so far.

It’s human nature (or at least consumer nature) to want something to seem new when you buy it; to make it seem like the money was spent on something tangible. You can completely re-do the inner workings of a piece of software, but at the end of the day, if it doesn’t look any different, to most consumers, it might as well not be. Snow Leopard looks like Leopard, therefore, to many, it might as well be Leopard.

All that said, it is only $29.

[photos: flickr/kessiye, flickr/thenandagain and AMC]

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