On Wednesday, the company released the final, or gold, code for the next-generation Mac operating system. From the gold code, Apple can begin manufacturing copies for sale at retail.
But some analysts wonder if Apple isn't rushing Mac OS X out the door solely to meet the official March 24 launch date. Missing features, such as DVD support and notebook sleep functions, could mean the new operating system needs more time to ripen on the tree.
"I find the whole DVD thing a little hard to understand, and not having it is a serious flaw," said IDC analyst Roger Kay. "It seems to me that if they don't have full DVD support in OS X, that's probably a bit premature."
Apple spokeswoman Alicia Awbrey confirmed that full DVD support will be missing from the new release. She deferred commenting on support for iTunes, iDVD and iMovie software to the March 21 press event.
"In terms of the whole feature, product details, I'm not prepared to go into that right now," she said.
On Tuesday, Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple started an ad campaign for CD-rewritable drives, playing into its ongoing emphasis on consumers' ability to create music CDs, edit video and write DVDs.
Lack of support for any of these features in the new OS will be a significant shortfall, said Gartner analyst Chris LeTocq.
"The iTunes, iDVD and iMovie have got to be an essential part of OS X," he said. "These things are all essential parts of Apple's messaging. They have got to work under OS X."
Another sign of possible trouble is the timing of the final code's release. For example, Microsoft released on Friday the gold code for its next Windows version of Office. Office XP is slated to go on sale on or around May 31 but will appear in new machines earlier that month.
Analysts say this represents a more typical lead time before a product goes on sale. Apple has less than 20 days to manufacture CDs from the gold code, package them and ship the product to retailers for sale March 24.
LeTocq pointed out that Apple doesn't work with the same volume as Microsoft, so the timing isn't as tight as it might appear. Still, "it's not a good sign," he said.
"Three weeks to move it through the (dealer) channel is unusual, but not impossible," LeTocq said. "It's achievable but a little tough. I think you'll be able to order from the Apple site on the release date, but it will be more difficult to buy Mac OS X at stores because of the logistics involved."
Kay's understanding is that "they were already late" releasing final code to manufacturing. "Apple came to a point where they said, 'We're still not where we want to be, but it's good enough to put out.'"
But Awbrey dismissed the idea that Apple had released gold code later than planned.
"No, we're on schedule. We're where we want to be," she said. "We announced the gold master as another milestone."
In Apple's defense, Kay noted that software development is an ongoing process that "requires an arbitrary determination to when the code is good enough. They can always add more features later on."
Apparently that is Apple's plan, with many missing features slated to go into an update for Mac OS X sometime before or when it appears on new computers in the summer.
No time to wait
Apple has delayed Mac OS X several times. As recently as early last year, the company said the new OS would be released in summer 2000. In May, Apple announced that a public beta would come out in the summer and pushed back the final release date to January 2001. However, the company has maintained that Mac OS X's public beta met its commitment for a summer release.
But with Apple's recent quarterly loss and sales woes, pressure is on to meet deadlines. For this reason, Apple has good reason for rushing Mac OS X's release, said Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal.
"Are they cutting corners?" he asked. "I don't know. But I think any more delay in this OS is going to spell doom for them in terms of margins. I think Mac OS X is going to prove to be their saving grace for the next quarter."
While Apple is banking on a return to profitability, the company needs to release a successful, high-margin product to recoup recent losses, he said.
"I think they're counting on this to be their savior," Deal said. "It's a high-margin product, and they need that right now."
One curious choice is Apple's decision to hold back on offering the operating system on new Macs. LeTocq said that is much less a sign about how ready Mac OS X is and more about Apple looking for profits.
"What Apple wants to do is extract money from the faithful," he said. "It's much the same as Microsoft or Sony does with their stuff. When you have the new version, you have something out for a relatively high price for a short period of time."
With pent-up demand for the oft-delayed operating system, Apple hopes to sell high-margin boxed copies first before offering Mac OS X on new systems, Deal and LeTocq said.
But LeTocq said that because of the missing features, he does not expect Apple to put a major marketing effort behind Mac OS X. "Only the cognizant will know, and they'll rush out to buy it."
Mac OS X initially will sell for $129, although the company issued coupons for $30 off for those paying for the beta.
The new version is the most significant revision of Mac OS since its 1984 introduction, potentially bringing it on par with Unix and Windows 2000 in regard to features such as protected memory, support for symmetrical processing and pre-emptive multitasking.
Minimum requirements are 128MB of RAM on any of the following Apple systems: iBook, iMac, Power Mac G3, Power Mac G4, G4 Cube and any PowerBook introduced after September 1998.