Apple's Snow Leopard arrived during the twilight zone between the completion of Microsoft's Windows 7 and its general release.
The Snow Leopard media was built in early August and shrink-wrapped and on sale late the same month. Windows 7 went gold in late July, but will not appear on the high street until October 22nd.
The reason for the three-month delay on Windows 7 is so Microsoft's partners can create their custom builds, complete with third-party utilities, trial subscriptions and OEM branding that can be detrimental to the user experience. The culture is different to Apple's carefully crafted marriage of hardware and software into one seductive package.
Still, forget all that for a moment. If you leave aside both the packaging on the Apple side, and the OEM pollution on the Windows side, how do these two operating systems stack up against one another?
Abandon ye rhetoric
First, fanboys go home. Following an extended period living in first one, then the other, environment it is hard to justify the more strident criticisms of either. Windows 7 is smooth, stable and easy to use. Snow Leopard is not short of applications, nor is it that hard to accommodate on a Windows network. Most things can be achieved on either platform.
Now some observations. The Mac user interface is better designed and more polished than that of Windows 7. Take the Dock versus the Taskbar, for example. The Taskbar is greatly improved in Windows 7, but there are flaws, like the fudged business of hiding notification icons by default, and the fact that it does not scale nicely as it fills. Setting "Small icons" in the Taskbar is a disaster: each icon becomes mostly background, achieving only a 20 per cent reduction in width but with much poorer visibility. That would never have made it past the Mac design tyrants.
Docks away: icons for OS X, left, and Windows 7, right
By contrast, the Mac Dock simply scales icons smaller as it fills. A clever magnification option - though curiously off by default - expands icons as you mouse over them. It is a better solution to the problem. A small detail, but our computing experience is a composite of small details and few are truly unimportant.
Here's another pro-Mac detail. Spaces. Press F8 and you get four desktops to play with (configurable from one to sixteen). Why can't Windows do that?
Nevertheless, Windows 7 has some handy features lacking in Snow Leopard. Libraries is one, which merges several locations to appear as one. Jump Lists, overlays and programmable preview windows in the Taskbar are another, though few applications currently take advantage, and there is also multi-touch support, though who knows, Apple may announce its own Tablet soon.
The problem with this kind of analysis is that it misses the main beef users have with Windows, which is not with how it runs when it works correctly, but how often it fails to work correctly, or runs too slowly. Does Windows 7 fix it? A nuanced answer is required.
Windows works better when properly managed, which is why a skilled business user gets a better experience than the hapless crapware-laden consumer. Windows Vista at launch was a worst case, with some machines on sale that could barely run it, especially when further crippled by resource hogs like Outlook 2007. Malware is also a factor, since Windows is by far the most popular target.
Windows 7 offers considerable mitigation. It is less demanding that its predecessor, and typically, a Windows Vista machine actually runs faster once upgraded. Windows 7 is also less prone to annoying pauses, though they are not all eliminated. On the Mac side though, Snow Leopard is the fastest OS X yet, especially on 64-bit machines with generous amounts of RAM, and I would not bet against it in a head-to-head test.
Mac fish, Windows pond
What about a Mac in a Microsoft environment? Snow Leopard introduces enhanced Exchange support, based on Exchange Web Services rather than IMAP, which enables deep integration with Mail and iCal.
There are several disappointments though. You need Exchange 2007 SP1, and even then it is not feature complete. You cannot access public folders, or use multiple sending addresses, or get delegated access to other mailboxes. I also found it somewhat fragile, and from time to time had to re-start Mail to resume send and receive. Outlook on Windows is a superior Exchange client, for all its many faults.
Another point of interest is support for Microsoft's Office 2007 document formats, such as .docx and .xlsx. Apple has support for opening these in iWork 09, and even TextEdit can open .docx, but I found Mac Office 2008 necessary for reliable fidelity. Support for the classic Office formats is much better. Microsoft's Open XML is best avoided in mixed environments.
Apple Pages, right, scrambled the diagram in this Word .docx document
Overall it is not that hard to run Snow Leopard alongside Windows, and there is always virtualised Windows as a fallback. That said, Microsoft has an array of network management and group policy tools that make Windows standardisation attractive to admins, and this is unlikely to change soon. Migration to web-based applications, making the local operating system less relevant, may well come sooner.
Software developers have a lot to like in Snow Leopard. Xcode is a fantastic IDE that comes for free and that has new static analysis and profiling tools. Apple has also simplified concurrent programming by building thread management into the operating system, in a feature called Grand Central Dispatch. OS X is also a more comfortable environment than Windows for working with cross-platform code, thanks to its Unix family compatibility.
On the other hand, there is nothing to match Visual Studio for rapid development of business applications with .NET languages. There is no clear winner, as the two platforms address different needs.
In the end you have to choose your poison. Snow Leopard continues the Mac tradition: it is fast, elegant and powerful. Further, Mac OS X has a capacity to delight the user that is lacking in Windows, thanks to design excellence. Against it is the higher price of entry and restricted choice of hardware from a single vendor.
Windows 7 is the mass-market choice, benefits from countless applications along with mature network management tools, and performs well. I doubt many who switched from Windows Vista to OS X will return, but Windows 7 may stem the tide. ®
Updated on 9/3 at 10:00 a.m. PDT to add configurability information about Mac OS X's Spaces feature.