Analyst: Apple's 'Leopard' OS release on track for October

But prelaunch buzz is quieter than before Tiger debuted in 2005

Apple will meet its October deadline for releasing Mac OS X "Leopard," the next edition of its operating system, an analyst said Monday. But its impact won't be close to that of 2005's Tiger, or Mac OS X 10.4.

"I think they'll make it," said analyst Ezra Gottheil, of Technology Business Research Inc. "The noise I'm hearing is that the beta is getting close to good enough. They gave themselves enough time when they delayed it in April."

Five months ago, Apple announced it was pushing back Leopard from a mid-June release to sometime in October. It blamed the delay on the iPhone, saying it was forced to steal engineers and other personnel from Leopard development to wrap up the smart phone in time for its summer roll-out. The iPhone hit store shelves June 29.

Gottheil's take on the Leopard release came amid speculation that filled Apple-related sites, blogs and message forums about the meaning of multiple beta builds reaching testers last week. The AppleInsider Web site, for example, noted Saturday that testers received two builds of Leopard, the second hard on the heels of the first. In the past, as Apple has neared marking its code as ready to duplicate, several builds have been pushed to beta testers.

Other sites, including ThinkSecret, cited other clues, among them that the final build of last week addressed only two issues; neither bug was considered serious.

But Leopard's release, though highly anticipated by some Mac users, hasn't generated the buzz of its predecessor, said Gottheil. "That's largely because [Tiger] had some catching up to do," he said, referring to the reason why users seemed more excited about it than they do about Leopard. "Another factor [in the lack of buzz] is that there were no surprises in the last announcements."

At June's Worldwide Developer's Conference, CEO Steve Jobs talked up Leopard, but unlike at past presentations, had no until-then-secret feature to share. Instead, he reiterated the same additions and enhancements, including a new backup program called Time Machine and virtual workspaces, dubbed Spaces, that he had touted in January at the MacWorld Expo.

In the end, that won't matter, said Gottheil. Nor will a delay, if his prediction is wrong and Apple misses an October release.

"An operating system release only shifts the sale cycle forward and backward," he said, talking of what would happen if Leopard is pushed into November, or beyond. Even the upgrade revenue pop, estimated at about US$100 million for the quarter in which Tiger debuted in 2005, won't be significant in the grand scheme of things. "They've been on such broad quarter-by-quarter sales increase that I don't think upgrades will much matter."

In fact, the short-term impact of Leopard isn't what should be measured, Gottheil argued. "It's the long-term effect that can be profound." Tiger, said Gottheil, is the driving force behind the climb of Apple hardware sales. Leopard must do the same going forward.

Gottheil is confident that the new OS will do fine. "It just has to be a reasonable improvement, so there's not much risk that it will flop," he said.

Like other financial analysts, Gottheil recently adjusted his sales targets for Apple's current quarter, which ends Sept. 30. Monday, for instance, Citigroup analyst Richard Gardner raised his price target for Apple stock from $160 a share to $185 a share, and in an accompanying note, cited signs that Apple's desktop and laptop sales will exceed the company's July estimates.

Gottheil agreed: "They'll do better than their estimates. They've gotten a lot of buzz this summer, including the new iPods."

As of about 3 p.m. EDT Monday, Apple's share price was just over $147 a share, up more than $3 over Friday's close.

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