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Apple unleashes Panther

The Mac maker plans to charge existing users who want to upgrade to the new operating system, as it has done with the original Mac OS X and with update 10.2.

SAN FRANCISCO--With its new Panther operating system, Apple Computer is once again asking Mac users to pay to adopt a new cat.

As it did with the original Mac OS X and with OS X 10.2 Jaguar, Apple plans to charge existing users who want to upgrade to the new OS. The operating system, announced earlier Monday by CEO Steve Jobs, will cost $129 when it goes on sale later this year.

For that investment, Apple says Mac users can look forward to more than 100 new features, including a new look for the Finder, as well as Expose, a feature designed to make it easier to find the window one is looking for on a crowded desktop. Another new feature in Panther will automatically synchronize files in a particular folder into a .Mac subscriber's iDisk, Apple's name for its online storage service.

The new OS also features improvements under the hood designed to bolster the operating system's Unix underpinnings and to allow Mac OS X systems to fit in better on Windows-dominated corporate networks.

Panther will also include iChat AV, an upgrade to Apple's instant messaging program that provides for audio and video conferencing with other iChat AV users. In addition to shipping with Panther, iChat AV will also be sold to Jaguar users for $30 and is available free, in beta form, until the end of the year.

"It's video conferencing for the rest of us," Jobs said Monday while demonstrating the software at the company's developer conference here. Jobs carried on a number of different chats, including one with Apple director and former Vice President Al Gore.

"Seriously, this is very cool," Gore told the crowd via teleconference from UCLA's campus, where Gore is a visiting professor.

Other improvements in Panther include the ability to place a colored label on particular files, new VPN software based on the IPSec standard and a new Font Book utility for managing typefaces, a faster program for viewing and searching PDF files. Apple is also updating its mail program to allow viewing of e-mail by threads and other new features.

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"I think it hits the same chord as Jaguar," Mac OS X marketing director Ken Bereskin said. "There is something for everyone."

Apple last charged for an OS upgrade with Jaguar, which went on sale in August. Microsoft, by contrast, issues major upgrades to its software less frequently. Microsoft last charged for the move from Windows ME to Windows XP in October 2001. Windows ME debuted in September 2000, about two years after its predecessor, Windows 98.

Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg said that although Apple has been charging for upgrades on almost a yearly basis, the company has continued to deliver a good value with its new versions.

"It certainly shows that Apple is dedicated to continuing to provide upgrades to the OS on a timely basis," he said. Gartenberg said that Panther offers a good value for most people and that for those who decide against upgrading, "it's not like your existing applications are going to stop running--and you can still get the showstopper, which is iChat AV."

Gartenberg said that Panther offers a series of improvements for Mac users. "It's not so much any one feature, but the overall usability of the OS looks improved," he said.

For his part, Jobs did not give an exact shipping date for Panther but pointed out that it will be up and running long before Microsoft's Longhorn operating system, which was recently postponed from 2004 to 2005. To dramatize the point, Jobs showed a video of a Panther running and then another of a Longhorn steer grazing while "Home on the Range" played in the background.

Apple also said Monday that it plans to make a server version of Panther available by the end of this year for $499 for a 10-client edition and $999 for an unlimited client license.