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Release schedule postponed for new Mac OS

Apple Computer's Mac OS X will be delayed until early next year, although the effect of the delay may be minimal, according to analysts.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--A final version of Apple Computer's Mac OS X won't come out until early next year, although the effect of an apparent delay to the release schedule will be minimal, according to analysts.

Chief executive Steve Jobs said at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference here today that Apple will release a "public beta" of its next operating system for desktops this summer containing a futuristic interface called "Aqua," with a final version to arrive early in 2001.

This appears to represent a postponement of a final version of the OS by approximately six months, although the schedule will allow users to gain access to upcoming technology. In January, Jobs said Apple would release a commercial version of Mac OS X by the middle of this year.

A press release from the company at the time stated: "Mac OS X will go on sale as a shrink-wrapped software product this summer and will be pre-loaded as the standard operating system on all Macintosh computers in early 2001."

The terminology being used gives Apple plenty of wiggle room--it's not clear precisely how a "public beta" differs from a "commercial release." Phil Schiller, vice president of worldwide product marketing at Apple, said nothing has changed. The public beta is merely the official name for the product Apple spoke about in January.

Nonetheless, some of the marketing and channel issues surrounding the upcoming OS are now in flux. Schiller said Apple has not determined whether the public beta will come out as a shrink-wrapped product or whether Apple will charge for it. In January, Apple stated that the product would be sold as a boxed product.

The difference is crucial in how the product can be characterized. Typically, software firms don't charge for beta versions, but they do charge for final, boxed software. Schiller added that, to his knowledge, Apple has not charged for beta versions before. Beta software is also rarely, if ever, put in shrink-wrapped boxes. Giving the public beta away for free could indicate the product that emerges wasn't the same product Apple contemplated earlier.

But in the end, one thing is clear: Customers will not be able to buy a final version of the OS until next year. Similarly, Microsoft and the Linux community earlier postponed core OS products.

Jobs, nonetheless, was buoyant and stated that the company remains on track.

"We are on schedule to do this," Jobs said. "This is real...We're going to put everything we have behind marketing OS X."

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company is working to minimize any damage from the delay, however. After the public beta arrives, Apple is still committed to start pre-loading the OS on desktops by early 2001.

Under the earlier calendar, Apple said it planned to release a final version of the OS in the summer of 2000 and to start pre-loading it on systems in early 2001.

The company also released a new beta version of the software for developers today. This marks the fourth beta version.

Financial analysts downplayed any effect of the delay. Although some had hoped Apple would release a public beta version today, J.P. Morgan analyst Daniel Kunstler said he was impressed, even surprised, by Apple's progress.

"Overhauling an operating system is a pretty complicated thing," Kunstler said.

This isn't the first delay to the OS. Last year at the developers' conference, Jobs said that it was being delayed from late 1999 to early 2000.

"A public beta of Mac OS X will be available this summer, enabling customers to experience Apple's next-generation operating system firsthand. The final version 1.0 of Mac OS X will be available in January 2001," the company said in a statement. "Mac OS X is designed to run on all Macintosh computers using PowerPC G3 and G4 processor chips and requires a minimum of 64MB of memory."

As expected, there were no major hardware announcements. However, the 3,000-plus developers who ran into the convention hall and pushed their way to the front still got quite a show.

In one of many demos, Jobs showed a utility designed to crash the system. The "Bomb App" itself did crash, but a QuickTime movie that was playing continued without a hitch. Speaking of QuickTime, Apple promised a new version of the multimedia software this summer.

Jobs showed a trailer for "X-Men" running with the new software, which is capable of playing MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 movies from either a local file or streamed over a network.

Responding to criticism that early developer previews weren't enough like previous Mac interfaces, Jobs showed ways that new features can be hidden to make the operating system more like its predecessors.

"It's exactly like the Mac Finder today, if that's the way you want it," Jobs said.

Apple also trotted out Adobe president Bruce Chizen, who showed off an OS X version of desktop publishing application InDesign, and Sun president Ed Zander, who praised Apple for its independent spirit.

"I haven't been to a Jobs revival in a number of years," Zander said as he addressed the overflow crowd. While telling the masses he was under no obligation to praise their leader, he did so anyway.

"Steve and his team give meaning to the words 'vision,' 'focus' and 'execution,'" Zander said. "There's no doubt innovation is back. Choice is back."

The gaming crowd was excited to see an OS X version of Quake and even more excited by the news that SGI's Alias Wavefront unit is finally releasing a Mac port of its 3D animation program, Maya.

Analysts were largely positive on Jobs' speech and the apparent commitment from big-name developers.

"They've done a very good job of getting in touch with the developer community," said David Bailey, a financial analyst with Gerard Klauer Mattison.

Kunstler said Jobs' aggressive pitch to developers to start porting their code is a sign that Apple is fully behind the new operating system.

"I think it's a commitment that the (developers) are not going to get strung out," he said.

In other news, Jobs announced that Apple is slashing the price for its WebObjects development program from $50,000 to $699 for an unlimited transaction, single-server license.

"We'd like 30,000 or 300,000 customers, and there aren't that many that can pay $50,000," Jobs said. "We've decided to make a change and put this awesome tech in the hands of a lot of people."