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Apple to uncrate Panther OS this month

Version 10.3 of Mac OS X includes a new look and better speed for the Finder file-search tool and will introduce Expose, a feature designed to help locate a desired window on a crowded desktop.

Apple Computer said Wednesday that its Mac OS X version 10.3 operating system, dubbed Panther, will become available later this month.

The company reported that Panther will be made available on the evening of Oct. 24. Apple first said in June that the operating system would go on sale for $129 by year's end. Macintosh enthusiast sites said last week that Apple had wrapped up development on Panther.

Among the features in Panther are a new look for Finder, Apple's file-searching tool, which is purported to be six times faster than it was in the company's Mac OS X version 10.2, known as Jaguar. The release also will introduce Expose, a feature designed to make it easier to find a desired window on a crowded desktop, as well as a method for automatically synchronizing files in a particular folder with Apple's online storage service.

"Panther sets the new gold standard for operating systems," Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO, said in a statement. "With more than 150 new features, we're delivering innovations today that will not be seen in any other operating system for years to come."

One of the most distinctive new features in Panther is one that Apple had not previously confirmed--the ability of the built-in Mail and Address Book programs to grab data from a Microsoft Exchange server. The programs do so by applying some of the protocols that Microsoft uses for its Outlook Web Access program.

"We found some fun ways to do that," said Phil Schiller, senior vice president at Apple. For years, Mac OS X users had been asking for a way to connect to an Exchange server using Mac OS X.

This summer, Microsoft finally delivered an upgrade to the Mac version of Office that allows customers to connect to Exchange 2000 and Exchange 2003 servers using the program's Entourage calendar and e-mail program. Schiller said that he did not think Apple's decision to include its own way of connecting to Exchange servers will hurt the company's relationship with Microsoft.

"I don't think this will conflict at all with what Microsoft is doing with Office," he said.

Apple also has made its Safari program the default Web browser in Panther. The move follows Microsoft's decision in June not to develop new versions of Internet Explorer for the Mac.

The new operating system also features improvements under the hood designed to bolster its Unix underpinnings and to allow Mac OS X systems to fit in better on Windows-dominated corporate networks. Panther is set to include a final version of iChat AV, an Apple instant-messaging program designed to work with audio and video conferencing.

Apple's server-oriented version of the operating system, Panther Server, will ship on the same date. The latest version of the company's Unix-based server operating system claims more than 150 new features, including an improved Server Administration tool. The company is also including support for Samba 3, an open-source project aimed at delivering file and print services to Windows clients.

Panther will be sold through the company's retail stores and its resellers and can be preordered through Apple's Web site starting Wednesday. Apple's stores and resellers will host special events the night of the release to celebrate Panther's introduction.

Although most Mac OS X customers will have to pay full price to get Panther, Apple is making updates available for $19.95 to those customers who buy a Jaguar-equipped system from Wednesday onward. The company also is continuing its "Family Pack," which sells for $199 and allows customers to install the same copy of Mac OS X on up to five machines at the same residence.

The software runs on most of the same G3 and G4 machines that previous Mac OS X versions have required, with 128MB of memory as well as a built-in USB (universal serial bus) port required.

By releasing Panther this month, rather than at year's end, Apple is hoping to capture some additional customers during the holiday buying season. "The timing is great because it gives time for people to get it throughout what is probably the biggest buying period of the year," Schiller said.

Apple also updated its iCal calendar program and iSync, its program for sharing data between a Mac and wireless devices. Available now, the iCal 1.5.1 update includes a new interface for creating and managing event details as well as support for working across different time zones. Apple added calendar support for Symbian-based phones and new mobile phones from Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications to iSync, extending the company's efforts in integrating with Bluetooth-enabled devices.

CNET's Matt Hines contributed to this report.