Apple has delivered another pre-release build of Snow Leopard, its next operating system.
The new version includes developer tools to mimic the iPhone's location-sensing skills and boost the multi-touch function of the company's laptops, according to reports on the web.
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 APIs for making use of the multi-touch features in the newest MacBook and MacBook Pro notebooks, according to AppleInsider.
CoreLocation, which was included in the iPhone as part of a January 2008 update, uses mobile phone 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.
Gottheil was bullish on the idea that Snow Leopard may include more support for multi-touch, the finger gestures available in limited form on Apple's laptop trackpads. The design, which was launched 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 . Multi-touch, like geo-location, was first found on the iPhone.
"Apple might be able to get more out of the multi-touch touchpads," said Gottheil. He pointed to the four-finger swipe that calls up Leopard's "Expose" screen feature. "Before [multi-touch], 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 said it would ship the update to Mac OS X 10.5, aka Leopard, in about a year. It also stressed both then and later, that Snow Leopard would focus on performance and stability improvements, and lack the kind of flashy interface or feature changes that users have come to expect from the company's operating systems upgrades.
Apple's current online marketing materials for Snow Leopard, for example, claim that the OS 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 the retail market research company NPD Group, 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 percent 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 percent higher than Tiger's.
Gottheil does not see Apple being 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 . It has said its next operating system, Windows 7, is no fully-fledged revamp, but an update to Vista that focuses on boosting performance.
One way 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 iMacs] 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 roll out Mac OS 10.6 and promote it as the OS that takes advantage of the new hardware.
Snow Leopard will be optimised for multi-core machines - the company has promised to "squeeze every last drop of power from multi-core systems" - and will support OpenCL (Open Computing Language) to allow developers to "steal" computing power from the graphics processor and apply it to general, non-graphics tasks.
Apple has been silent in recent months about its plans for rolling out Snow Leopard.