Apple’s fallen, but it’ll probably get up

Just after the good news that Apple’s sold nine digits of iPod (I’m still guessing that they crossed that mark in April, as I predicted here), the company comes out with the bad news that they’re slipping the next version of Mac OS X, 10.5, better known as Leopard. According to the New York Times,

Apple Inc., the computer and consumer electronics company, said Thursday that the introduction of the new version of its flagship Macintosh OS X operating system would be delayed as much as four months because of quality issues.

The company previously said the program would ship this spring.

The uncharacteristic schedule slippage is particularly embarrassing for Apple, which is based in Cupertino, Calif., because it had previously poked fun at Microsoft’s struggles to complete its Vista operating system.

If you think slipping an OS release four months is just as bad as slipping it two years (while shedding previously marquee features like an all-new file system), then, yes, I guess Apple’s embarrassed.

Here’s Apple’s terse—and oddly informal—official statement on the matter:

iPhone has already passed several of its required certification tests and is on schedule to ship in late June as planned. We can’t wait until customers get their hands (and fingers) on it and experience what a revolutionary and magical product it is. However, iPhone contains the most sophisticated software ever shipped on a mobile device, and finishing it on time has not come without a price — we had to borrow some key software engineering and QA resources from our Mac OS X team, and as a result we will not be able to release Leopard at our Worldwide Developers Conference in early June as planned. While Leopard’s features will be complete by then, we cannot deliver the quality release that we and our customers expect from us. We now plan to show our developers a near final version of Leopard at the conference, give them a beta copy to take home so they can do their final testing, and ship Leopard in October. We think it will be well worth the wait. Life often presents tradeoffs, and in this case we’re sure we’ve made the right ones.

Comparisons with Microsoft’s ability to ship major OS releases aside, there’s really no good way to spin a slip, but some Infinite Loopoligists among the technorati have gone overboard in their bearishness, calling this slip evidence that the iPhone is in serious trouble, and that Apple’s taken its eye off their core business in computers.

To be sure, slips are bad. For one thing, Apple’s losing a quarter’s-worth of software sales revenue at best. At worst, they may experience a pause in computer buying as users hold off on upgrades until Leopard’s released (after all, who wants to buy a $1,000+ machine, pace Mac mini, only to have to shell out $150 for an OS update a couple of months later?), slowing down revenue they might otherwise have booked. For another, a slip is a measure of last resort. Before you slip, you cut. Apple’s probably down to the bare minimum of new features they can get away with while still calling Leopard a major OS release, and they’re still having problems getting it all in the can. Good thing a bunch of the features are still secret!

Even so, to say that any of this augurs badly for the iPhone is rank speculation. Apple may, or may not, be shifting last minute software engineering to their mobile device. For all we know, the resources “borrowed” from Mac OS for the iPhone have been tasked to the project for months already. We can only wait and see.

What’s more, dividing the iPhone and Mac OS X efforts ignores the fact that we’re still talking about the same core operating system. Here’s where things have really changed for Apple over the last year: Apple has gone from a simple client/server OS split (with the iPod’s OS as the adopted child, drawn from a different gene pool) to a much more complex family tree. The iPhone and Apple tv (which also slipped, but that could have been for manufacturing reasons) both have Mac OS X at their core, too. The Leopard project has implications for more than just the computer side of Apple’s business. That makes this OS iteration a huge change for Apple; they’ve never had so much at stake on a software engineering effort.

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