Apple Leaps Forward With Snow Leopard

SAN FRANCISCO – Perhaps it was too much to expect CEO Steve Jobs to come bounding out on stage like Sportacus from the kids show “LazyTown,” but the Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) faithful still got quite a few surprises at the opening of its Worldwide Developer Conference.

The show opened with another amusing commercial featuring actor John Hodgeman in his usual self-effacing “I’m a PC” role. As usual, PC was his hapless self in filming a “commercial” for WWDC attendees. “I want to wish you a week with some innovation, but not too much please.”

Cut, retake

“You’ve already sold a billion iPhone apps, isn’t that enough already?”

Cut, retake.

After sixty failed takes, Justin “I’m a Mac” Long shows up and tells everyone to have fun.

Let it snow

The big news on the OS front was a preview of Snow Leopard, the next generation of Mac OS X due out this September. Bertrand Serlet, senior vice president of software engineering at Apple, took a few minutes to bash Windows before diving into Snow Leopard’s features.

Windows Vista took most of the scorn, but Windows 7 didn’t escape unharmed. “Fundamentally, it’s just another version of Windows Vista,” he said.

“The challenge we set for ourselves is to build a better Leopard,” he continued, referring to Mac OS X 10.5, the current operating system. That meant three changes: improvements of existing features, new technologies, and support for Microsoft Exchange.

The install is 45 percent faster than the previous versions and thanks to compression, will save 6GB of space. Support for Asian languages comes through the trackpad on the MacBook, which will let users draw the character rather than type.

Apple promised Safari 4, the latest edition of its Web browser, would far out-perform existing browsers, but on Snow Leopard it would be even faster. Also, if a plug-in crashes, it won’t take down the whole browser. It just fails to operate in its own little window, but the browser itself remains running.

QuickTime 10 has been rewritten for a 50 percent improvement in performance and has features like video editing, where you can crop video from both the front and back end to trim down a long video to just a clip.

Snow Leopard will support auto discovery of Exchange servers, so all apps that use Exchange will recognize it. Also, the QuickLook feature allows for viewing Office documents, even if it’s not installed. Apple’s iCal calendar program and Exchange are now fully integrated, making it possible to drag a contact from Exchange, dropping it into iCal, and a meeting can be set.

Serlet then gave the news everyone wanted: Mac OS X 10.6, Snow Leopard, will ship in September as a $29 upgrade for existing Leopard users. A “family pack” for up to five Macs will sell for $49. He also said a near-final version would be available today for developers to certify and validate their applications.

Next page: Faster, longer lasting MacBooks

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Faster, longer lasting MacBooks

Apple’s Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing, dove right into the hardware news kicking off the event. Normally hardware announcements aren’t fodder for a developer conference, much less to lead off the show, but Apple likes to think different.

He announced a new 15-inch MacBook Pro with the same unibody design Apple introduced last year. This new MacBook Pro uses the same lithium polymer battery found in the larger, 17-inch model and provides seven hours of battery life (two extra hours more than the earlier model). It can also be recharged 1,000 times, instead of 300 times, before losing its efficiency or eventually needing replacement.

“That means five years of battery life for the average user before they see a diminished charge, and that’s longer than a typical notebook life,” Schiller said.

The new MacBook also features a brighter color screen and uses an SD memory card, commonly used in digital cameras, plus a big boost in internals. Users can now get it with as high as a 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 8GB of memory and 500GB of storage.

The starting price has been cut to $1,699, a $200 cut, although that’s with a slower processor and less memory and storage. Schiller also announced the 17-inch MacBook Pro is getting a $300 price cut to $2,599. The prices are effective today and the new MacBook is in stores today.

Apple’s low-end 13-inch MacBook is also getting the new battery for seven hours of performance, the backlit keyboard found on the 15- and 17-inch MacBooks, the SD Card slot and a FireWire 800 port. It’s being renamed MacBook Pro and pricing begins at $1,199.

The ultra-thin MacBook Air got a price trim, starting now at $1,499, plus has a faster processor option. Users can now get a 2.13GHz processor in the high-end Air, which also shed $700 in price, to $1,799.

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