Will OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard become Apple’s Windows XP?

Sections: Features, Mac OS X, Mountain Lion, Operating Systems, Opinions and Editorials, Originals, Snow Leopard, Windows

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Perhaps in some ways it already has. Computerworld’s Gregg Keizer suggests that while one in four Macs now runs OS X v10.8 Mountain Lion, indications are that OS X Snow Leopard, which originally shipped in August, 2009, may be becoming the Mac platform’s equivalent of Microsoft’s Windows XP. Originally released in 2001, Windows XP sees some 40% of Windows users stubbornly refusing to upgrade to subsequent releases of Windows Vista, Windows 7, and now Windows 8. Microsoft has announced they will pull the support plug on XP in 2014, but they’ve said that before, and I’ll believe it when I see it.

Keizer notes that the upgrade/adoption rate for OS X Mountain Lion—released on July 25 for the friendly price of $19.95—has not kept pace with the uptake trajectory of Apple’s last two operating system editions. OS X v10.6 Snow Leopard and OS X v10.7 Lion  both grabbed slightly larger market shares after three full months of availability, albeit not by a whole lot. Snow Leopard had the quickest uptake of the three at 27% penetration after three months.

However, Mountain Lion’s gains have interestingly been more at the expense of Lion than Snow Leopard. Even though in addition to the affordable price, Apple has taken the unusual step of making direct upgrades from the second-last OS X version possible, enabling users to bypass 10.7 Lion altogether. Surprisingly few version 10.6 users have taken advantage, with Snow Leopard having lost just 6.6 share percentage points since Mountain Lion’s release, compared to more than double that—15.6 percentage points (or 33%)—for the more recent Lion.

Apple has backhandedly acknowledged continued robust usage of 10.6 by issuing a security a patch update for Snow Leopard in late September, a break with its usual practice of dropping support for earlier OS X editions once two newer versions had been released.

That creates another parallel with Windows XP, which Microsoft has (as noted, presumably with reluctance) continued to support 11 years after its release in acknowledgement of continued widespread usership.

Keizer thinks it’s unclear why so many Mac users are sticking with Snow Leopard, citing as one possibility the fact that Rosetta emulation support for running applications written for the PowerPC processors Apple used until early 2006 when it released Lion. While Snow Leopard won’t run on PowerPC-equipped Macs, it still has the Rosetta emulator, and can therefore run PowerPC applications, which is huge for some veteran Mac users with large accretions of older software that still does the job for them, and for which satisfactory OS X native substitutes are unavailable.

That was certainly a large element of my reluctance to upgrade past OS X 10.6, and indeed I was never persuaded to install Lion. Another major reason for stubborn Snow Leopard loyalty is that many longstanding Mac users are dismayed by and opposed to the increasing “iOSsification” of OS X, and prefer the way the traditional OS X user interface works for them.

Nevertheless, I did finally download and install Mountain Lion in September, but I’ve also kept Snow Leopard installed on a second hard drive partition, largely as insurance and for continued access to PowerPC applications.

I had initially anticipated that Snow Leopard would remain my main work OS, but was surprised to find that Mountain Lion provides enough of a performance boost, along with the convenience of up-to-date software compatibility, that I’ve made my peace, sort of, with the now apparently inevitable convergence of OS X with Apple’s mobile OS.

A third loyalty-inducing attribute of Snow Leopard is that it’s also a very stable OS, although I’ve experienced no serious stability problems or bugginess with Mountain Lion.

However, I could very easily remain a Snow Leopard holdout, at least for a year to two more before upgrading my system to hardware that probably won’t support 10.6. The two tipping points for me were the Mountain Lion upgrade’s minimal price and the low (-ish, I still detest having to upgrade over the Internet and not have a real, hard media installer disk) hassle upgrade procedure without having to upgrade through Lion.

I’m glad I did install Mountain Lion, and I encourage anyone straddling the fence to take the leap, especially if they can do so as I did without burning any bridges back to Snow Leopard if 10.8’s unfortunate aspects (for example, they ruined the Spaces feature by merging it with Expose to create the execrable Mission Control) prove too much to stomach. For me, improved performance and significantly cooler running on my going-on-four-year-old Core 2 Duo MacBook are enough to keep me from reverting, but only just.

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  • Jos

    Nice post, kind of missing the most obvious point though. It’s not the xp equivalent because a lot of people did not want to update their operating system. In Snow Leopard’s case it’s a simple matter of people being unable to do so. My old mini can’t upgrade to anything newer while it happily keeps running 24/7 as it has since 2006.

    • jmmx

      On the other hand – it is possible that many are not upgrading because MT Lion has been problematic.

      See, for example:
      Mt Lion – Most annoying release since Win98?

  • Jim Frost

    Another reasn for not upgrading past Snow Leopard is that it is not supprorted on many of the earlier Intel Macs – anything based on the Core or Core 2 Duo processors, for instance. That includes hardware that was released as recently as 2009.

    We have five Macs in our household, and two cannot be upgraded to Lion or beyond.

    Having used Snow Leopard, Lion, and Mountain Lion extensively (and every other OS X back to 10.1) I find them all to have very good stability. The change to scrollbar behavior in Lion – not just direction (which you can change) but also design (which works poorly on anything that’s not a trackpad or Magic Mouse, and has rendering problems too) kept one of the Macs that could run Lion+ on Snow Leopard. Even so, dwindling support for Snow Leopard has it on the list for upgrade in the near future.

  • stefn

    Not at all like XP in that Apple faces no financial consequences; it practically gives the OSX versions away. For MFST, OS sales are its lifeblood, so its not being able to convince users to upgrade is a huge problem.

  • Mark Blumenthal

    Although I am a twenty-five year Mac fanboi, I agree with you that Snow Leopard remains the Swiss army knife OS X operating system.

    I still preferentially use WIndows XP when I need to use Windows-compatible programs, and run them on my MacBook Pro by using Parallels, the superb Windows emulator.

    OS X is no longer the driving force behind Apple’s corporate goals, witness the proliferation of iPhones, iPods and iPads. These, in turn, are stimulating a considerable uptick in Macintosh purchases and an incursion for the first time of Apple products in the workplace.

    It is a brilliant strategy and it is working well. I just hope Apple has the good sense to continue supporting Snow Leopard for those of us who are high-end Macintosh users and use our computers to integrate the other Apple products we favor.

  • Hm

    I upgraded to Lion earlier this year in order to bring greater cross-compatibility with my new iPad Retina. I would quite gladly upgrade again to Mountain Lion, but my 2008 Mac Pro is not compatible with it. As Jos pointed out, I suspect this is a very large reason why many have not upgraded.

    That said, I thought Snow Leopard was a fantastic OS and most of the team in my office are still running it.

  • Mark

    That is what stopped me from updating… my hardware does not support anything newer than Snow Leopard. So i am stuck. I do not want to pay for a new Mac (too expensive). With the Final Cut X debacle… I moved my business to Adobe Premiere and a Windows PC. Cheaper than buying a new Mac and trying to work with a limited Final Cut product and backed by Adobe support.

  • Davydoodle

    Three reasons not to upgrade from Snow Leopard: spaces, spaces, and spaces.

  • Mason

    The fact that so many *can’t* upgrade due to hardware limitations is a testament to the fact that Macs often last much longer than Window’s counterparts, in term of speed an usability. I have a 4 year old MacBook Pro (that just made the cut for ML, I believe) that is faster than most of my PC using friend’s brand new computers, and has seen those same folks cycle through multiple laptops in that time. It’s likely that I will not make the cut for the next OS now that they are on a yearly cycle, but I see several more years of life in this old horse, probably without supported OS upgrades.

    One thing that is not being mentioned about resistance to upgrading is *fear*. I’ve been VERY close to taking the plunge several times, but backed off, recalling the horrible experience I had upgrading from 10.5 to 10.6. I purchased and installed that upgrade very close to its release date, and for several months after hated it and hated my computer. It’s not that it wasn’t a decent OS, it’s that so many applications I had come to rely on with my machine simply stopped working. I just don’t want to have to deal with that again.

    I’ve been considering the upgrade again recently, but rather than happily go to the app store and pay the measly $20, I’ve spent days and days getting my affairs in order in case of the worst. Replacing my (now lost) 10.6 install disc in multiple formats in case of a rollback. Securing a secondary TimeMachine disk to save my “last” Snow Leopard backup in case I need to roll-back, and enumerating every single installed application, listing which ones I believe to be essential to my work and life-flow, and googling whether or not the app is ML compatible, seeing if it can be replaced with an ML compatible app affordably if not, etc, and checking solutions on various support threads for the software that IS known to have issues.

    In other words, I haven’t even bought it and Mountain Lion is already costing me, in terms of time and worry. I only considered it because I saw a few applications I would have liked to purchase that required Lion or Mountain Lion. Nothing important, but it’s the start of obsolescence for Snow Leopard.

  • Ziv

    Couldn’t agree more with your last remark about spaces. I’ve been using OSX since Tiger, and spaces became an integral part of my workflow, especially in video editing. Lion’s interface, even in this small, petty regard, drives me nuts.