Apple's next version of the Mac OS X is reportedly close to being a release candidate, and some analysts believe the company is on track to meet its self-imposed deadline of shipping Leopard next month.
Developers received the latest pre-release of the operating system, called 9A559, Friday evening, just hours after receiving two minor updates of the previous build 9A527, AppleInsider, a site for Mac enthusiasts, reported.
Build 9A559 contained only a couple of known issues, and may be the first of several release candidates, AppleInsider said. The last release candidate graduates to "Gold Master," which is the version that's shipped for duplication and retail packaging.
An Apple spokesman on Wednesday confirmed that 9A559 was the latest build, but could not confirm whether it was a release candidate. Leopard's official release number will be Mac OS X 10.5.
For Apple to meet its promise of releasing Leopard to consumers sometime in October, the company would have to finish the current testing process within three weeks, and some analysts expect the company to meet the tight schedule. "There's no certainty in software, but all signs are pointing to it shipping on time," Ezra Gottheil, analyst for Technology Business Research, told InformationWeek.
Apple pushed back the release of Leopard by four months to October in order to concentrate its resources on getting the iPhone in consumers' hands on June 29. That, however, is not typical for the computer maker, said Michael Silver, an analyst for Gartner, in an e-mail.
"I think another slip for them is not likely, but if it happened, it would not be as big a deal for them as when Microsoft slips," he said.
That's because Microsoft's Windows operating system dominates the market, and is the major platform for most computer makers and software vendors. Apple, on the other hand, is the only maker of the Macintosh operating system.
In addition, Leopard isn't seen as a game-changing release. With Tiger, the previous version of the Mac OS X, Apple reached "a plateau in terms of accessibility and respectability as an alternative to the PC," Gottheil said. Leopard, on the other hand, adds lots of new features, some 300, but none are considered groundbreaking.
"It's sort of like (Windows) Vista to XP -- Leopard to Tiger," Gottheil said. "In both cases, XP and Tiger are already good enough, and now they're getting better."
Besides freshening up the OS with the release of Leopard, Apple also will draw attention back to the Mac, which arguably has been in the shadows with all the hoopla Apple has raised this year in launching the iPhone and new iPods. The last bit of Mac news was last month, when the company unveiled a new line of iMacs with 20- and 24-inch displays and the latest Intel Core 2 Duo processors. New displays and processors are considered routine upgrades in the computer industry.
Turning the spotlight on the Mac is certainly needed, if Apple hopes to take advantage of Microsoft's rocky launch of Vista, which has been available to consumers since January. On a global basis, Apple has failed to make much headway against Windows PCs. Roger L. Kay, president of consulting firm Endpoint Technologies Associates, told The New York Times that the Mac's worldwide market share was only 3% as of June 2007. Apple's worldwide share peaked in 1984 at 14%.
Apple typically focuses its formidable marketing operation on one major product launch at a time, which is an effective way of generating interest among consumers. The strategy also makes the best use of the company's best salesman, the company's legendary chief executive. "Steve Jobs is an immense marketing asset, so they have to let him do one thing before moving to the next," Gottheil said.
In the short term, Leopard isn't expected to add significantly to Mac sales, which have been growing. In the long term, however, the OS could have an impact, if consumers eventually perceive Leopard-based Macs as outperforming Vista PCs, and also see them as more secure. Said Gottheil, "We won't really know those things until there's a larger footprint (of both products) in world."