Analyst: Apple making smart moves with next OS, Snow Leopard

But a low-key release this year may not drive revenue like Leopard did, says expert

Apple Inc. has delivered another prerelease build of Snow Leopard, its next operating system, that includes developer tools to mimic the iPhone's location-sensing skills and boost the multitouch function of the company's laptops, according to reports on the Web.

Both moves would be smart for Apple if they are part of the operating system when it is rolled out, an expert said today.

According to AppleInsider, developers now have Mac OS X 10.6 Build 10A261, which includes a development framework, dubbed "CoreLocation," for triangulating location, as well as access to new application programming interfaces for making use of the multitouch features in the newest MacBook and MacBook Pro notebooks.

CoreLocation debuted in the first-generation iPhone as part of a January 2008 firmware update that lacks any Global Positioning System hardware and instead uses cellular signal towers to determine an approximate location. According to AppleInsider's sources, Snow Leopard includes support for the feature.

"Apple clearly wants to leverage the portability [features] of its smaller devices, like the iPhone, on its other hardware," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research Inc.

He was also bullish on the idea that Snow Leopard may include more support for multitouch, the finger gestures available in limited form on Apple's laptop trackpads. The design, which debuted early last year on the MacBook Air and then on the updated MacBook Pro line, was extended to the less-expensive MacBooks in Apple's October laptop revamp. Multitouch capability, like geolocation, was first found on the iPhone.

"Apple might be able to get more out of the multitouch touchpads," said Gottheil. He pointed to the four-finger swipe that calls up Leopard's "Expose" screen feature. "Before [multitouch], I just never used Expose on an Apple laptop ... it was just too hard to do the Function-F9 keypresses."

With Snow Leopard, third-party software developers will be able to call on the operating system's gestures within their own applications, AppleInsider reported.

Last June, Apple confirmed that it was working on Snow Leopard, and at the time, the company said it would ship the update to Mac OS X 10.5, a.k.a. Leopard, in about a year. It also stressed that Snow Leopard would focus on performance and stability improvements and that it would lack the kind of flashy interface or feature changes that users have come to expect from the company's operating system upgrades. Apple's current online marketing materials for Snow Leopard, for example, claim that the operating system is "taking a break from adding new features."

Today, Gottheil said everyone should take Apple at its word. "I think that Apple will try to make it as appealing as it can as an upgrade," he said. "But unless they have some brilliant insight that they're hiding, they're basically going to deliver a lot of invisible improvements with Snow Leopard."

And while that may not dampen the enthusiasm of Apple's most fervent fans, it will likely mean less of a benefit to the bottom line. "I don't think they'll get the upgrade revenue that they did before with Leopard," Gottheil said.

According to retail market research company NPD Group Inc., Apple easily broke its one-month upgrade revenue record in late 2007 when it launched Leopard that October. Unit sales of Leopard were up 20.5% over its predecessor, Mac OS 10.4, also known as Tiger, when both versions' first-month numbers were compared. Leopard's revenue was up even more: 32.8% higher than Tiger's.

Gottheil said he doesn't expect Apple to be able to repeat that performance with the lower-key Snow Leopard. "But then, that's sort of where OS system development is heading, isn't it?" he said, pointing to a similar message coming out of Microsoft Corp. It has said its next operating system, Windows 7, is no full-fledged revamp but an update to Vista that focuses on boosting performance.

One way that Apple could improve its chances of promoting Snow Leopard would be if it launched the new operating system with a redesigned line of iMacs, as some have speculated. "There's been talk of Apple using quad-core processors in the iMac," Gottheil acknowledged, referring to reports by other analysts, primarily Shaw Wu of Kaufman Brothers, who has recently speculated that Apple will soon refresh its main desktop line.

"Apple might have the two [Snow Leopard and iMac] ready at the same time, although they don't necessarily have to," said Gottheil. Instead, Apple could launch a line of more powerful desktops sooner, including models with quad-core processors or more powerful graphics processors. Then, later in the year, it could roll out Mac OS 10.6 and promote it as the operating system that takes advantage of the new hardware.

Snow Leopard will be optimized for multicore machines -- the company has promised to "squeeze every last drop of power from multicore systems" -- and it will support OpenCL (Open Computing Language) to allow developers to "steal" computing power from the graphics processor and apply it to general, nongraphics tasks.

Apple has been silent in recent months about its plans for rolling out Snow Leopard. Despite predictions that the company would announce a timetable at last month's Macworld Expo, it failed to do so.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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