The widely anticipated update to Apple Computer's Mac OS X will appear earlier than expected, sources say, which is good news for the company in a tough year.
The new version, code-named Jaguar and officially known as Mac OS X 10.2, is now expected to ship in early August, barring unforeseen difficulties, said sources familiar with Apple's product strategy. In May, Apple indicated the OS would ship by the end of summer, which many analysts took to mean the end of September or even October.
"It sort of seems like the same situation as the first release of OS X, which came at a time when Apple needed to generate some high-margin revenue," said Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal. "It's quite possible we'll see (the new version) released ahead of schedule--again, at a time when Apple needs to maintain its margins and profitability."
In typical fashion, Apple would not comment on the pending announcement--due at the upcoming MacWorld Expo, which starts in two weeks--or whether Jaguar will appear early.
"We have stated publicly that Jaguar will be available in late summer," was all company spokesman Bill Evans would offer.
But in a sign that testing is winding down, Apple last week began closing the spigot on Jaguar beta releases, which before then had been rolling out, on average, about twice a week, said tester sources.
"For Apple, 'end of summer' is probably midnight on Sept. 23," said NPDTechworld analyst Stephen Baker. "Even if you viewed 'end of summer' as Labor Day (Sept. 2), anything that comes out at the beginning of the (previous) month is certainly early. On a financial basis, you have a whole month to book revenue based on that, versus a couple of days or weeks. That's a big chunk of extra time."
Though Jaguar's debut might not make for huge revenue gains, an early release would give Apple a chance to squeeze out additional sales in a year when consumer spending has been flat. The back-to-school season--the second biggest period in the year for PC sales and one of Apple's busiest seasons historically--runs from late August to the end of September. But this year sales are expected to be slow. And the Cupertino, Calif.-based company has already seen lackluster sales, citing them in its profit warning for the just-ended third quarter.
In a Tuesday research note, Merrill Lynch analyst Steven Fortuna served up bleak news, reducing his projections for worldwide PC sales in 2002. Fortuna dropped his number to 2.5 percent unit growth from 10.5 percent.
"The back-to-school market, which usually helps the September quarter, has not materialized to a great degree the past two years and may disappoint this year once again," Fortuna wrote.
But IDC analyst Roger Kay was unenthusiastic about the Jaguar release, contending that Apple's OS updates come too frequently. The company launched Mac OS X 10.0 in March 2001, followed by version 10.1 in September.
"OS X 10.1 didn't get its full shot at maturity before the release of the new system," Kay said. "From a tactical point of view, they're truncating one revenue stream to bring on another one. They didn't even fully extract the revenue from the first product."
Kay also questioned how many Mac OS X 10.1 users would move to Jaguar, although he did see a good market for those on the older system, Mac OS 9.
"On the other hand, it's a very competitive market," Kay said. "If they continue to bring out enhancements and create buzz around the Mac environment, people will pay attention to them."
One refined cat
Testers say recent Jaguar test versions, or beta builds, deliver on many of the promises Apple CEO Steve Jobs made when he previewed the OS in May. Most refinements to the Aqua user interface have come in the last few beta builds, another indication Jaguar is nearly ready. Unlike other software developers, which typically seed feature-complete testing copies, Apple tends to make major changes right up until the last minute, particularly those involving the interface. Final interface tweaks tend to indicate a product that is nearly complete.
Those refinements include changes to the Quartz rendering engine, which has to do with how well Jaguar renders fonts, among other things. New tools, for example, deliver more control over font smoothing. Overall, the look of the desktop is much clearer and crisper than Mac OS X 10.1.5, particularly on liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors, beta testers said.
But the new rendering engine, called Quartz Extreme, could tax some systems running older graphics cards. For optimum performance, the new engine requires at minimum an Nvidia GeForce2MX or greater graphics card or any 32MB ATI Radeon graphics card. The hefty graphics requirements could present problems for some Apple notebooks or older desktops.
Jaguar also serves up more control over devices that are part of Apple's "digital hub" strategy. Jobs has positioned Mac OS X as a hub for applications involving digital cameras, camcorders, music players and DVDs. The company has released four digital applications: iTunes 2, iMovie 2, iDVD 2 and iPhoto 1.1. The revamped "System Preferences" area, where users adjust many Mac OS X settings, includes a row called "Digital Hub," beta testers said. Here, Jaguar offers up new access controls for burning CDs and DVDs or changing settings affecting music and photo software and devices, among others.
One of the most important new features mirrors a recent Microsoft announcement, but digresses in its execution. At the TechXNY trade show last week in New York, the software powerhouse announced that its Tablet PC would ship Nov. 7. The device is a notebook hybrid that uses handwriting-recognition technology to let users input text without the need for special characters.
Apple's handwriting-recognition technology, dubbed Inkwell, would let Jaguar users write with a pen on a graphic designers tablet, such as those made by Wacom, to input text. While Microsoft courts a new market with Tablet PC, Apple hopes to tap its large base of graphic designers, many of whom already own tablets. Any application already supporting the tablet would be able to take handwritten text input using the Inkwell technology.
But Kay questioned whether this installed base of design tablets would lead to Jaguar upgrades.
"The handwriting-recognition thing is not something people have been asking for," Kay said. "They've been working without it, so I don't think that's going to be a big driver of sales."
Another Inkwell feature, "Gestures," would let people who use tablets more frequently than keyboards use graffiti-like symbols in place of keyboard shortcuts, said beta testers. And another feature, "Word List," would similarly use graffiti shorthand to represent frequently used words.
Jaguar also adds an integrated instant messaging client called iChat, which is fully compatible with AOL's Instant Messenger service. Apple has added full support for Bluetooth to Jaguar as well. Bluetooth, a technology that lets peripherals wirelessly connect to a computer over a short distance, is a cousin to 802.11b wireless networking. Already, Apple is the first computer maker to offer wireless networking on all its systems. Adding Bluetooth to Mac OS X would put Apple ahead of Microsoft, which has yet to incorporate support for the technology into Windows XP.
Other new features include a revamped address box and e-mail client; improved wireless and connected networking using the new "Rendezvous" feature; Sherlock 3, a new version of Apple's desktop and Internet search utility; and the QuickTime 6 digital media streaming player. Apple announced QuickTime 6 in February but waited until June to issue a preview release because of a licensing scuffle over MPEG-4.