Snow Leopard Goes Out With a Market Share Roar

Come WWDC in June, we’ll likely see OS X Lion (s aapl) changing status from preview to official public release. That makes May a good time to look at the April report on OS market share from web-analytics firm Net Applications for some perspective on Snow Leopard.

According to Net Applications, all versions of OS X combined reached a new high in OS market share in April, with 5.4 percent worldwide as determined by web browsing usage. The previous record was 5.33 percent, set in March 2010. Following that high, OS X declined to 4.98 percent last October before rebounding. Perhaps not coincidentally, that rebound coincided with the release of the redesigned MacBook Air, followed by new MacBook Pros this February. This isn’t to say new Mac portables were the only drivers of Snow Leopard growth. Over the course of its lifespan, Snow Leopard has seen plenty of previous Mac users upgrading, too.

Snow Leopard was released on August 28, 2009, for as little as $29 for a single-user license. Within a month, it accounted for 17 percent of the OS X market, despite being available only for Intel-based Macs. Undoubtedly, the low cost of Snow Leopard spurred adoption, but was arguably not the only reason. Leopard peaked at 71 percent of the OS X market in July 2009, before being superseded by Snow Leopard, which now accounts for 68 percent of the OS X over a similar time frame. It appears new versions of OS X do quite well whatever the price. The downside of that success, at least for users, is a likely return to a higher price. How high, and the method of distribution, may be intertwined.

Although the developer preview of Lion has been distributed through the App Store, expecting consumers to download nearly four gigabytes of data seems unreasonable, at least as the exclusive method. Other Apple software — like iWork, iLife, and Aperture — are all available at the App Store and on disc, and there’s also been an Amazon (s amzn) placeholder sighting for Lion on DVD. Two methods of distribution seem possible, but perhaps not three. The redesigned MacBook Air shipped with system software on a USB drive, but the future is clearly download only. Why introduce another retail distribution method now, especially considering no USB version of Snow Leopard was offered to owners of the previous generation of the MacBook Air?

More salient, at least to anyone with more than one Mac, would be the licensing terms for downloading OS X. From the Mac App Store Terms and Conditions:

(i) You may download and use an application from the Mac App Store (“Mac App Store Product”) for personal, non-commercial use on any Apple-branded products running Mac OS X (“Mac Computer”) that you own or control.

That would effectively render the family pack version of OS X, which has always been a great deal, obsolete. The downside would be consumers with only a single Mac would be paying substantially more (if you consider cost per install) through the Mac App Store, no matter what the cost of Lion is. We’ll find out what the next version of OS X costs next month at WWDC, but how much would Lion be worth to you?