Why Read Reviews of Operating Systems?

(Update: I originally title this post, “Why Write Reviews of Operating Systems”, but in reality, my hang-up is more about why people read these. I believe any writer should write whatever they want, and should try to make as much money as they can. I more don’t understand why people will spend hours today reading reviews of something they probably already bought.).

Today is Mountain Lion day! Not the the animal, which is also known as a puma or panther, but instead the latest revision of Apple’s computer operating system known as OS X((Ironically Apple already released one called Puma (10.1) and Panther (10.3)) (pronounced “ten” not “ex”). A new trend has arrived, where many, many tech bloggers take to “reviewing” the operating system. It’s likely that by now, Ben Brooks, Shawn Blanc, Stephen Hackett and MacStories all have reviews up. This trend was really driven by John Siracua’s now legendary run of OS X reviews. When I think of reviews, I think of someone recommending whether or not I should buy/see/consume something, but with operating systems, it’s really not that cut and dry. Here are my hang-ups about these reviews.

Users Upgrade Habits

I don’t have any hard data to support this theory, but I would wager to guess that a vast majority users fit into one of two upgrade categories, they either upgrade only when they get a new computer or they upgrade immediately. Neither of these users get’s value from a “review” because they either are purchasing the OS immediately, or waiting until it’s literally forced upon them. I tend to fall into the category of updating as soon as I know all (or most) of my everyday apps will work without impediment.

The counter to this argument is Windows XP and Windows Vista. Windows XP was released in 2001 and is still the most used version of any desktop operating system as far as I know. Part of the problem is that corporations struggle to upgrade in a timely manner, but the biggest reason is that Windows Vista was such a disaster. After a 6 years1 expectations were high, and it was a massive failure. By the time Microsoft got Windows 7 out the door two years later, companies were skeptical, and less interested in dropping tons of money to upgrade their systems.

Although Lion is not held in high regard in most circles, at least compared to previous OS X version, according to a slide from WWDC’s keynote, it is being used on 40% of Macs, in whatever way Apple was using to track that. While this number doesn’t seem high, my guess is that most of the people who didn’t upgrade didn’t do it because Lion got bad “reviews”. Instead I would wager that most of those people don’t know, or don’t care there is an upgrade.

Upgrade Cost and Completely Limited Selection

Apple hasn’t charged much for their OS X upgrades in quite a while now. Mountain Lion is setting a record with a retail price of $20, which is a one-time cost for up to five machines associated with the same iTunes account. Any user that owns a Mac that is less than 2-3 years old most likely can afford $20 without much of a fuss. I understand that when there are multiple versions of the OS, like there are with Windows, and triple digit prices (again, Windows, that is until Windows 8) users need to be more informed before they make a purchase.

But there is only one option and it cost about the same as it costs a couple to see a movie in a theater. I understand we see iPhone case reviews for $20 items, and movie reviews for what is less than $20 per person, but there are differences there.

There are dozens (if not hundreds) of iPhone case options, and picking between a couple of similarly priced ones can be challenging especially when most of the time a person can’t try one out before ordering. With a movie, it may only cost $10 or so, but that is for about a 2 hour experience, as opposed to hundreds of hours of computer use over the next year(s). OS X 10.8 is the only upgrade option, and since most people aren’t going to not upgrade once they are considering it, again they don’t get value from a traditional “review.”

An Incomplete Picture

Although every review you see today will almost certainly be written by someone who was using Mountain Lion since the first developer preview, it will be a very incomplete picture. Virtually no apps have been released yet that really take advantage of Mountain Lion’s new features, and things like Notification Center can’t truly be valued until they are regularly used for a while. The biggest flaw in the reviews of any software or hardware is that most of the time the reviewer’s use is somewhat limited, and you can’t fully appreciate it until you have used it for a while.

As a result I think that reviewers might not be as aware of it’s shortcomings2 at this time. I admit that this is the thinnest part of my argument, since most of the reviewers had this for months, but I think until more software is released it’s imperfect.

Power Users Eventually Have No Choice

After a while, new versions of applications will only run on the newest OS. I admit that this isn’t the best argument either, but there are still some good examples. The Mac App Store has only existed since 10.6 and most apps seem to require some variant of that, but there are exceptions. 1Password requires 10.7 or higher, and while I am sure the older versions still work, it’s unlikely they are being supported. And because of the way the Mac App Store is setup, only the newest version can be updated. So if a user is on 10.6 and using 1Password (I realize this is an imperfect example because I don’t think 1Password was in the Mac App Store before Lion), the can’t get updates anymore. If there is a security issue or something else breaks, they are out of luck.

Apple’s own iPhoto app not only requires 10.7, but actually 10.7.4, meaning that not only does the user have to have Lion, but have updated Lion as well. I understand that most people who like to have the latest and greatest versions of apps probably also tend to have the latest and greatest OS, but I am sure it’s not totally inclusive.

Wrap-Up

It’s not all bad though. Reviews do add some value, mostly that they point out features that are either unadvertised or that a user may have missed. And that is how I think reviews should be presented. Rather than call then “reviews”, call them “feature lists” or “whats new?” or something along those lines. Explain to me what Apple has added/removed from System Preferences, or whether or not they have fixed the annoyances with Messages without writing a “review” which is traditionally telling me whether or not I should do/buy/consume something.

Most of the people that are going to take the time to read these reviews aren’t looking for the answer to the question “Should I buy Mountain Lion?” They are looking for bugs, features, limitations, tips, suggestions and such. If you think I am splitting hairs about whether that means a “review” that’s fine. But at the end of the day, I expect most of the “reviews” of Lion to contain virtually the same content. So my plea is simply one that Steve Jobs made many years ago, Think Different.

  1. Six years! Apple released 5 versions of their OS in this time []
  2. Except for Ben Brooks who is a master at pointing out shortcomings []