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Lately the buzz around many of my peers has been around Apple's new OS and how they are leaving Windows behind in their dust.  Yes, everyone knows I have been in the Windows camp for sometime, but this fact is irrelevant to my following argument - How to be the apparent innovation leader. 

First, some explanation is in order.  By apparent innovation leader, I am referring to the ability to be perceived at the leading edge of technology whether you are actually there or not.  Apple has done a great job of this lately, but will it last?  If history is an indicator, yes it will last, but at the expense of the current user base and developer community. 

About one year ago, I completed an in depth study of the three leading OS offerings: Windows, Linux(redhat & suse), and OS X.  My findings lead to the following blanket assertion about OS X: They have finally settled in to something for the long haul (explained below), but while their marketing campaign is quite warm and fuzzy they are still more than willing to stiff the user or the developer.  Now people are outraged by this statement as they claim that OS X 10.X is the best thing since sliced bread for user experience.  This may very well be so, but painting an old house doesn't change the fact the foundation is wearing thin.  If you do a google search for OS X's roots, you will find it is build on top of a unix-like OS called Darwin which is strongly rooted in BSD 4.5.  This leads me to my first major point of how Apple appears to stay on the leading edge: Buy a new operating system core and build on top of it the experience of the decade.  Apple is the master of doing this.  Once they detect their offering is getting moldy they are quick to pickup a better core with which to build a new experience on top of.  Unfortunately, by doing this core swap someone must get stiffed.

As you probably expected, this OS core swap means incompatibility of the current software base.  For a great example look at the transition from OS 9 to OS X.  Basically, Apple said if you want to stick with us you need to completely re-outfit yourself.  The surprising thing is that people did just that.  More importantly, people outside of the Mac camp joined in once OS X was released due to its innovations.  So please do not complain if Longhorn brings about some of the same as the market has signaled they are ok with such discontinuous innovation in favor of the next revolution.  This compatibility is THE MOST overlooked aspect of Windows.  If you don't believe me, search the blogosphere for “MS and shims in the OS”.  You will be amazed at the ways the OS is tweaked for individual applications all in the name of backwards compatibility.       

So to keep an image of innovation, you could provide advances through R&D or you could shorten your release cycle, keep your eye candy fresh and continuously harvest the low hanging fruit until such branches disappear, then move on to another type of fruit all together.  To put this into an OS X content, read the first few paragraphs of this review of Apple's latest release.  Yes, I am being somewhat harsh and failing to mention some of the innovations in OS X.  This is mainly due to the fact that the kernel innovations I have read of so far (IOKit and Core Foundation) really aren't that exciting.

Well, to wrap this up quickly, I will not seriously look at OS X (as an innovator) until they provide some signal they will guarantee compatibility to me (as both a user and developer) for an extended amount of time.  I agree at some point discontinuos innovation may be necessary to make a major step forward, but such things, expecially in the OS space, need to be infrequent and well justified.  It looks like Apple is starting to finally figure this out by, for the first time, promising no disruptive API changes in their latest offering.  But, for now, in my mind, Apple in not an innovation leader because they have historically been ignoring the (mandatory) hardest part of innovation, compatibility.  I am not willing to upgrade at over 100$ US a pop every year to something that gives me inevitable upgrade hassles and no guarantees my current software suite and development efforts are still valid.

Posted on Saturday, April 30, 2005 1:11 PM Programming , Tech News | Back to top

Comments on this post: How to be the apparent innovation leader - the Apple way

# re: How to be the apparent innovation leader - the Apple way
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I totally agree with the view presented. It is a lot easier to discard your old base and start over new, what matters is the consideration for the old users (applications in this case) that has to be considered during the shift.
Left by Vijay shankar ganesh K on May 01, 2005 2:48 AM

# re: How to be the apparent innovation leader - the Apple way
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For anyone out there who actually went through the migration of OS 9 to X it's nowhere near as bad as you both make it out to be, neither from the point of view of a developer or a user.

On the user side, OS X had and still has the classic emulation layer. No, it's not ideal, but by and large, it was good enough so that the majority of Classic OS apps could be run out of the box with a double-click. In fact, I still have some ancient apps like Zork installed on my box here.

On the developer side, the Carbon api was set up parallel to OS 9's so that more likely than not, developers with well-written OS 9 apps could just recompile and have their apps work on OS X.

Maybe this doesn't compare to what you have as a long-time Windows user, but if you ask most long-time mac users, the transition was just a little bumpy, not some kind of "mwahaha you have all been abandoned, pay up or eat our dust" kind of situation.

As for the ars technica review, that review was fairly positive and I don't see why you're linking to it to prove your point. While eye candy is something that comes with each release, that review is quite clear that it's not all there is to each upgrade.

From what you've written, it doesn't sound like you've used or developed on OS X for a lengthy period of time (and no, taking a friend's shiny new powerbook or ibook out for a few spins does not count). You should at least give it a try before you dismiss it with allegations of failure to innovate. I'll be the first to admit that a lot of the technologies in OS X are just ones picked up by the acquisition of NeXT, but if anything, the fact that they're old but still relevant and useful to us now means they deserve a closer look than they did the first time around. Cocoa, for one, is a shining example of this. Old, yes, yet it still ranks right up there with the best of desktop GUI programming.

Our industry would move a lot faster than it does now if only we'd drop all the religious fanaticism and give credit where credit's due.... But that's a topic for another day.
Left by M on May 05, 2005 9:28 AM

# re: How to be the apparent innovation leader - the Apple way
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Hey, Mike.

I was browsing the web and I decided to see how much stuff you've added to your blog. Very impressive, well done!

First of all, it is great to see you and your better half are doing well. I am glad that post-grad life is treating you well.

Secondly, this post I just read left me somewhat disappointed. You are claiming that Windows has done a better job for maintaining compatibility whereas Mac has avoided this issue by starting from scratch. If you look strictly at compatibly I would like to point out that many Windows applications are not nearly as compatible as you claim them to be. Also, MAC has a relatively strict policy of how many versions of their operating system they are willing to support. Microsoft on the other hand has to keep their OSes compatible because the majority of its users are still running really old operating systems such as Windows 98, while Apple has almost 95% of their users moved to OS X.2 and above. You said Apple users were forced to move to the OS X because, “…Apple said if you want to stick with us you need to completely re-outfit yourself.” I say users moved because Apple was able to offer them a better choice at affordable price. Apple users, unlike their Microsoft counterpart, are not afraid of buying the latest programs, or upgrading to the latest operating system. That is because Apple was able to demonstrate that their programs, including the latest OS X (Tiger) are simply rock solid. No offence to Microsoft, but I still remember the nightmare of Windows Millennium, and that was not a Beta either.

At some point Microsoft will have no choice but to cut their support (and backwards compatibility) for older operating systems. After all, as we see with their current release of Longhorn it’s harder and harder to support old operating systems. I think MS will have to choice but to tell their customers basically what Apple said. Question remains thought, will they (Microsoft) be as convincing as Apple? Only time will answer that question.
Left by Andrey on Aug 09, 2005 8:41 PM

# re: How to be the apparent innovation leader - the Apple way
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Increase the font size, please, or at least let me be able to do it, thanks.
Left by Zytan on Mar 10, 2007 8:58 PM

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