Is Apple's OS X Mountain Lion on early-release track?

Reports from blogs and OS X 10.8's preview release schedule offer clues

Apple may release OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion earlier than expected, according to a report by a popular blog and clues found within the release dates of the three developer previews of the new operating system.

On Tuesday, AppleInsider, citing an unnamed source, said that Apple's European arm was training new staff to answer queries about Mountain Lion. In the past, Apple has limited the training window, possibly to avoid leaks from the new staff about undisclosed features.

AppleInsider speculated that the staff hiring and training may mean Apple will debut Mountain Lion at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), which opens June 11 in San Francisco.

The release dates for Mountain Lion's developer previews also may hint at early availability.

Apple has shipped three OS X 10.8 developer-only previews so far, on Feb. 16, March 16 and most recently, April 18.

Those dates are ahead of the schedule Apple set last year when it fed developers a stream of previews for OS X 10.7, aka Lion, which went on sale July 20, 2011.

Mountain Lion's trio of previews were 8, 15 and 25 days earlier than the first three Lion previews: The former is now more than three weeks ahead of the latter's 2011 timetable.

If Apple keeps to the established pace and seeds one more preview to developers -- Lion offered four last year, then a so-called "gold master" build before hitting the Mac App Store -- Mountain Lion would go on sale June 25, with the gold master ready June 6.

That last date may be a tad early, as Apple opens WWDC the following week. It seems improbable that the company would preempt a ready-for-sale announcement at WWDC by releasing a gold master of OS X 10.8 several days earlier, entailing a risk that the news would leak.

Also in play are expected refreshes of Apple's computers.

Most experts assume Apple will unveil new iMac desktops and MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops this quarter and next with Intel's Ivy Bridge architecture. Ivy Bridge is Intel's third-generation design of the Core clan, and the first to use a 22-nanometer manufacturing process.

Quad-core Ivy Bridge processors are now available to computer makers (Insider, registration required), and dual-core siblings will be ready to ship in the next few months, Intel has said.

The iMac would seem the logical line to get Ivy Bridge first: All models of the desktop now rely on Intel second-generation quad-core chips -- unlike the MacBook families, where some models use dual-core processors -- and the iMac is the longest in the tooth.

Apple last refreshed the iMac May 3, 2011.

If Apple uses WWDC to reveal new iMacs -- or any other systems -- it would be to its advantage if they were preloaded with Mountain Lion, not Lion.

Using the newest operating system would appease customers, some who will complain if Mountain Lion launches just after they purchase a new machine. It would also reduce the company's fulfillment costs if, as expected, Apple announces Mountain Lion's release date at WWDC, then includes any Macs sold subsequently in a free upgrade program.

Apple has used the WWDC keynote -- the one part of the conference that's open to non-developers -- to pull the sheet off new Macs, although the last time it did was 2009.

Mountain Lion's release date is still an Apple secret; the company has only said it will ship the upgrade "late summer."

A June roll-out contradicts that timeline by at least a couple of months, but Apple has been known to beat its release estimates. In 2009, Apple shipped OS X 10.6, or Snow Leopard, on August 28, at a minimum days, at a maximum weeks, before the September target it had set earlier.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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