SAN JOSE, Calif. -- With all the hoopla surrounding the iPhone and the new matchbox-like iPods, it's easy to forget that Apple remains at its core a computer company.
Chief executive Steven P. Jobs and company are set to remind the world about their first love in coming days with the release of Leopard, the newest version of the Macintosh operating system, which will update the current Tiger.
Apple, which prefers not to announce anything in advance, has made an exception with a promise to let its latest cat loose this month. The company attributed a half-year delay to work on the iPhone, which hit the stores in July.
"Even though these other products are getting headlines, Apple continues to refresh and innovate [its computer business], even when they don't have to," said Richard Shim, an analyst with market research firm IDC. "If they didn't put Leopard out, they'd still be doing well in the market."
Leopard, more evolutionary than revolutionary, isn't expected to cause the kind of stir that occurred when Apple launched iPhone this year or when it announced in 2005 that it was switching to Intel's microprocessors. But analysts say springing Leopard on the market now will once again allow the Cupertino, Calif., company to trumpet its consumer-friendly software.
Among Leopard's highlights - the company says there are more than 300 new features - is Time Machine, a function that is sure to please those whose lives are increasingly becoming digital. It is classic Apple: Take something as dull as backup and make it sexy.
The feature provides a seamless way to retrieve deleted files, applications, photos and other material. It gives the appearance of backward time travel, automatically backing up everything on the Mac to an external hard drive or server. That capability alone could be worth the price of the upgrade if it makes an irritating and sometimes difficult, but crucial, chore a one-click snap.
The feature Spaces will let users jump between applications with a simple keystroke or click. There are updates to Mail, including simple functions to create to-do lists and files for notes, which is aimed in particular at those who treat e-mail like a calendar by sending themselves reminder messages. The to-do lists will automatically sync with iCal, the Macintosh calendar. Data detectors will "sense" phone numbers, addresses and events so they can be easily added to Address Book or iCal. There are also 30 professionally designed stationery templates.
Apple's iChat will get upgrades that will allow people to add photo and video backdrops, giving the appearance they are somewhere they are not.
Another feature lets users create their own Dashboard widgets, small applications that deliver, for example, weather information on desktops.
Other additions include a menu bar that floats "transparently" on the desktop. Another is the ability to de-clutter the desktop by storing documents, applications and folders in a stack that springs up in an arc when it is opened from the dock. Yet another is Quick Look, which allows users to flip through files, even video, without opening them. There's also a parental control content filter and the ability to limit the times children can use the computer.
Boot Camp - the free test software that lets users of Macs running on Intel chips to choose at start-up whether to run the Mac OS or Windows operating system - will be built into Leopard.
Apple also will ship a complete set of Windows drivers with Leopard, so that Windows applications will be able to use the Web cameras and other hardware features built into the Macintosh computers.
"I would put this under the category of, it's a nice upgrade, but it's not a game-changer," said Piper Jaffray & Co. analyst Gene Munster.
At the very least, he expects a good number of the 15 million Tiger software users to be tempted to upgrade immediately. That's because 2.5 million people have downloaded Boot Camp, and if they want to continue to run Windows on a Mac, they'll need Leopard. Apple will no longer support the beta version of Boot Camp with important fixes.
Leopard is priced at $129 for single copies and $199 for the family pack, which includes licenses for as many as five users.