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Switched On: Spreadable fruit


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Earlier this month, concerns among Apple fans and glasses among Apple-haters were alike raised as word came from the Cupertino castle that it would miss its self-imposed deadline for Leopard by four months. Rather than deliver Leopard (perhaps code-naming it Cheetah would have sped up development?) at its Worldwide Developer Conference in June as originally planned, the next major version of Mac OS would ship in October. The culprit was pegged as the iPhone, Apple's self-described revolutionary handset that has already changed some of the rules of the wireless business even as it has yet to change any customers' experiences.

Apple pointed to the sophistication of the iPhone's software, a mobile version of Mac OS X, dismissing any concerns that the phone's operating system is an expedient port. Mac fans should take heart, though. The iPhone's short-term ill effect on the Mac could translate into long-term benefit as Apple's developers may pick up optimization techniques working with the handset's small memory and storage footprint, perhaps fueling its long-speculated ultraportable PC.

Indeed, a four-month delay is not serious in the lifecycle of a modern desktop operating system and seems like an extra weekend in the context of the multi-year delay from the original launch timeframe of Windows Vista. And while Vista may have been more of an overhaul than any of Apple's recent dot-upgrade operating systems, we don't yet know what may be some of Leopard's most compelling features. What we do know is that Time Machine is not yet at the point where Apple could have used it to go back before the iPhone project got started and start working on Leopard four months earlier.

In any case, Apple's boxed operating system software revenues aren't significant enough to make a material difference in a financial quarter and, while Leopard will miss the back-to-school season, it will be here in time for the holiday. Still, some wondered after the delay announcement whether Apple, which has been on a roll not seen since the boulder that chased Indiana Jones, had lost some of its shine. Were bruises starting to appear in Apple's skin? As Apple announced its financial results last week, it was clear that any alarm was exaggerated as the company enjoyed its best March ever, blowing through financial analyst estimates. Hiring engineers on the supply side, though, is not the main question around scaling Apple. Rather, it's keeping its "different" identity as its products become increasingly mainstream and farther afield from the Mac.

Apple will continue to need to push the margin of those who will opt for its often limited selection of models and minimalist designs. Since Steve Jobs' return, the company has had a remarkable record of selling consumers on what they don't need -- floppy drives in computers, distant backward compatibility in operating systems, removable batteries in music players, and soon keyboards in smartphones. But that will become an increasingly uphill battle in a market that by and large looks at "value" as the number of french fries that are crammed into the paper cup accompanying the flagship fast food burger.

So far, Apple has managed this well with the iPod, tackling $50 bands that resulted in the current lineup of three product families stretching from $79 to $349; and it seems that malls are sprouting new Apple stores faster than angels get their wings. Partly due to its success with the line, Apple offers a broader selection than most of its competitors. But with Apple TV looking to turn around what's been a dreary climate for digital media adapters and the iPhone late to one of the most competitive global consumer technology hardware markets, its new forays will test how far Apple's winning product strategy can reach.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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