There’s method behind Apple’s madness

iPhone was correctly placed ahead of Leopard, says Tom Yager

Apple’s decision to push the release of Leopard (OS X 10.5) from June to October is provoking responses ranging from “so what? There are no indispensable new features in Leopard” to “see, I told you that Apple signaled a second-classing of the Mac when it dropped ‘computer’ from its name!” However, it’s not as simple an issue as that.

Apple wouldn’t have done this if it didn’t have to. Leopard and iPhone needed to ship in June. Strategy had them driving sales for each other, mating iPhone to Leopard the way Apple TV is married to the iTunes Store. Apple was faced with the ugly reality of having neither product go out on time unless it called all hands on deck, the way it did to get Intel Macs out eight months early. I think it was an easy choice. iPhone is a non-product with an installed base of zero, while the Mac and OS X Tiger are out there in ever-growing numbers.

Elite Mac users, especially developers, are clamouring for Leopard, but I’d challenge most prospective Mac buyers who are now in the PC mainstream to name one Leopard feature, or Vista feature for that matter, that they can’t live without. Leopard remains the star attraction at Apple’s WorldWide Developer Conference (WWDC). Commercial developers will be torqued off at having their go-to-market strategies scuttled yet again by the master to whom they’ve pledged their loyalty. Bummer, but OSes are a bitch to write, and the QA cycle never ends.

In a lot of ways, Leopard will be Apple’s first grownup OS, Unix-certified, 64-bit through and through and ready to stare down x64 editions of Vista and Longhorn Server, not to mention other Unixes from IBM, Sun and HP.

Even Intel and Microsoft will have a hard time matching the power of Apple’s Xcode 3.0 tools, which will still be free, and the tools and June’s feature complete Leopard beta will placate the angry mob. As long as developers can ride the escalator down from the OS X State of the Union session to get their priceless, top secret black cardboard-encased DVDs every year, Apple’s still cool with coders.

There is one thing Apple could do that would get WWDC attendees hugging, howling and high-fiving as they would at the release of Leopard: roll out an iPhone SDK (software development kit) at the conference. iPhone runs OS X, presumably a grossly cut-down version of it, but it’s entirely possible that developers could write to the overlap between the Mac and iPhone platforms to create client apps and background services that run identically on the desk and on the go.

I admit that’s wishful thinking; there is less flash memory in an iPhone than there is in my BlackBerry, and my BlackBerry isn’t even built to sync with iTunes. Apple has also established a track record for keeping non-Mac development goodies to itself. Despite the fact that Apple is selling games for iPod, and users have found hooks in Apple TV for games as well, Apple offers no SDK for either device.

iPhone has been a non-product since Steve Jobs’ shallow demo in January ‘07. Write-ups of the CTIA Wireless conference, where all mobile device makers strut their stuff — literally; there was a fashion show this year — reported that the conference was all about iPhone even though Apple didn’t show. Maybe those reporters went to a different show, because iPhone wasn’t front of mind for anyone I talked with.

While superphones from the likes of Nokia, Samsung, HTC and Motorola overlapped with iPhone’s feature set, that’s where the similarities end. Windows Mobile 6, BlackBerry Java and Symbian 9.x, the latter extended by Nokia for its Series 60, 80 and 90 devices, are all highly welcoming of custom software. Service and handset vendors showed live streaming television, embedded six megapixel cameras and wide screens galore.

Nokia’s even got Python and a fat subset of Unix APIs called Open C running on its phones. If Apple had let iPhone chill in order to let engineers work overtime on Leopard, there’s a good chance that iPhone might have been frozen out of the mobile market. I hope Apple comes through with the dev tools and documentation that would absolutely put iPhone over the top.

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