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Analysis Apple's decision to put back the final release of MacOS X to January 2001 is a product slip, like it or not, but in this day and age, does that really matter all that much?

Arguably not. The current release pattern for a major commercial operating system was set by Microsoft, with the long - and frequently extended - gestation of Windows 2000, or NT 5.0 as it was originally called. In comparison with NT 5.0's frequent delays, MacOS X's latest slip doesn't seem so bad, and at least Apple can claim - as it has been busily doing over the last day or so - that the new schedule sort of matches the one CEO Steve Jobs set down last January at MacWorld Expo.

Of course, the claim that Apple is shipping the same product, just changing the name, is pure PR spin. There's a big difference between a public beta test release and a shrinkwrapped OS, if only in terms of users' and the industry's perception of it. Shrinkwrapping an operating system tells the world it's done and it's ready for the rest of us.

That's why the likes of Red Hat and Corel spend a fortune boxing up Linux into neat CD and manual combo packages. They want the mainstream to view the open source OS as a product for them as much as it's for the techie hardcore.

And the same is true for MacOS X. 'Public beta' says 'unfinished software, use with caution' - it doesn't say 'this is shipping software, just not in a box'. The point is, if Apple had a product it could put in a box and charge users a hundred bucks (or whatever) a copy, it would, and the fact is, it can't at least not this summer.

So if we ignore senior product marketing VP Phil Schiller's semantic juggling - "We're delivering the same software at the same time, but with different names" - what does the delay mean for Apple?

At one level, it's actually a positive move. Jobs' statement that, come next January, all new Macs will ship with MacOS X pre-installed doesn't seem to have been overturned, and that will allow Apple to launch version 1.0 of the OS with a fluorish that would have been impossible if the software had already been on sale for the best part of six months. Instead, we'll get it altogether and all at once in a launch that will have much more impact than it would otherwise have done. And hopefully it will come with all the hooplah that accompanied the launch of Windows 95 - something that will make the wider IT and global media sit up and take note.

In the meantime, the public beta will at least have allowed Mac die-hards and large-scale users to evaluate the new operating system, and figure out in plenty of time what it's adoption will mean for them. It also gives the software developers more time to support MacOS X and make sure that support is good (though with Carbon now well established through MacOS 9, they've really very little excuse for not shipping solid MacOS X compatible apps).

The public test release should also ensure rather better quality control than previous versions of the MacOS have seen, simply by the sheer volume of testers the programme will inherently involve. That's why Microsoft made such a big deal of the various Windows 2000/NT 5.0 preview releases.

The snag here is that MacOS X is not as inherently complex as Windows 2000. Unless Apple is keeping a heck of a lot of features under wraps, the Microsoft product has far more components that the Apple one, largely because if its high-end server and enterprise computing role, which MacOS X really doesn't have (at least not yet). Windows 2000's delays were largely concerned with these kinds of facilities, not with getting the core OS right, since that hard largely already been done with NT 4.0. MacOS X does contain a lot that's new, but with its OpenStep/Rhapsody background, it's not like it's a totally 'built from the ground up' OS.

Apple, though, doesn't have Microsoft's resources, so it's important not to compare the two companies too closely. And since no one but the hardcore Mac faithful is expecting MacOS X to dent Microsoft's marketshare - that's Linux's job - any comparison is arguably fruitless. And that's the point here: now that Microsoft has "won the OS wars" - Jobs' words, not mine - it doesn't matter when Apple ships. Public beta or shrinkwrap, many Mac users will lap MacOS X up just the same, and the rest - all those still running System 7.5, for instance, and there are more of them than you might think - won't. But since none of them are likely to switch over to Windows at any time in the future, so what?

That suggests there's some truth in Schiller's comment that: "There is certainly more work to finish of the details of [MacOS X]. There is some fine-tuning, but the majority of the product is in place." Apple could have shipped this summer, but it makes sense to wait a little longer until the time is right.

And when will the time be right? Well, next January is a good bet. Apple will have a new shrinkwrapped and pre-installed OS ready to take advantage of new hardware, not only perhaps multi-CPU machines, but Macs with the next-generation 1GHz-oriented Velocity Engined to the teeth PowerPC G4 Plus. Hey, maybe Apple will be able to take on Microsoft again, after all... ®

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