Leopard nipping at Vista's heels

The new Mac OS is due in spring, which would put it after Vista. But if the Windows update slips again, that could let Apple get in first.

So which will come first, the Vista or the Leopard?

That is the question that was on the minds of many after Apple Computer at its developer conference announced Monday that the new version of the Mac OS X operating system will arrive next spring.

Microsoft has said it plans to release Windows Vista in January. However, it has hedged somewhat, and many analysts believe the update won't arrive until later in the year.

"One more thing the odds-makers in Vegas can bet on is which is going to ship first," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at JupiterResearch.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs first talked about Leopard at last year's developer conference, saying it would arrive in late 2006 or early 2007. Vista, meanwhile, has suffered through many delays, most recently missing its target of being ready for PCs on sale in this year's holiday shopping season.

Apple has been making hay about Vista and its many delays since the Windows update was still known by the code-name Longhorn. At the 2004 developer conference, the company welcomed attendees with signs saying "Redmond, we have a problem" and "Redmond, start your photocopiers."

Apple WWDC 2005
Apple mocks Microsoft in

The jabs continued on Monday, with Apple displaying posters such as "Mac OS X Leopard: Introducing Vista 2.0" and "Hasta la vista, Vista."

Jobs suggested that even though Microsoft is spending $5 billion a year on research and development, it is not producing much innovation. "These days, all they seem to be able to do is try to copy Google and Apple," he said.

From a feature standpoint, Apple tried to make the case that everything that is coming with Vista is already available in Tiger, the most recent Mac OS X, Gartenberg said.

Jobs also said the Mac maker was holding back on some of Leopard's features. He outlined 10 new things in the operating system, but said that there were more that the company was not talking about. (To see CNET Reviews' first take on the Leopard preview, click here.)

"We don't want our friends to start their photocopiers any sooner than they have to," he said.

Apple WWDC 2006
Credit: Ina Fried/CNET News.com
In 2006, Vista is the target.

In particular, Gartenberg noted that Jobs pointed to a new version of the Front Row media software, but did not offer any details. The current version allows remote-control access to pictures, music and videos, but stops short of the TV-recording features offered by Windows XP Media Center Edition.

"I suspect there is a lot more to Leopard that Apple is holding back," Gartenberg said.

While Leopard's spots are not all known, Microsoft has been very public about what is coming with Vista, and the software has been in public testing for some time. Chief among the new features are improved desktop search, a new graphics subsystem, and improved security and mobility features.

Even though Apple is largely on track with Leopard's timing, some analysts noted that the company could have scored an even bigger coup had it had the revamp ready in time to include on Macs for this year's holiday shopping season.

"They had a huge, gaping window of opportunity if they could ship this fall," said IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell. But now there's "a good chance" that Leopard won't ship until after Vista, he said.

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