Apple dumps big cat OS X nicknames, zips lips on price and release timetable

Fall launch suggests reports of shanghaied engineers were on the mark

Apple on Monday trumpeted OS X 10.9, or Mavericks, but made a U-turn from past practice and declined to name a price for the upgrade or tap a ship date as anything more specific than the fall.

The departure from tradition lends credence to reports a month ago that Apple had pushed back the release of OS X 10.9 because it shuffled engineers from that project to reinforce the iOS team. The last time Apple shipped an OS X upgrade in a month other than July or August was in 2007, when it delayed OS X Leopard for similar reasons in the run-up to the first iOS, called iPhone OS at the time.

Also non-traditional was the name Apple picked for OS X 10.9. While the nine previous editions were tagged with feline nicknames -- from Cheetah and Puma through Snow Leopard and Mountain Lion -- the company believed the trend had run its course.

Or the remaining cats were too small a pool to continue the pattern, said Craig Federighi, head of OS X and iOS development, during Monday's keynote at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). "We do not want to be the first software in history to be delayed due to a dwindling supply of cats," Federighi joked before revealing that Apple had shifted to a naming convention honoring California, "in the place where OS X is designed and built."

OS X Mavericks, or more prosaically 10.9, was named after a big-wave surfing spot on the California coast about 35 miles northwest of Apple's Cupertino headquarters.

Federighi showed off only a handful of the more than 200 new features Apple claimed it had added to Mavericks, including Finder tabs -- for collecting several file manager windows into one view -- file tagging and improved support for multiple monitors. That last will be welcomed by power users, for Mavericks will put a menu bar on every screen and the Dock on the screen currently in use, tasks that now require third-party programs.

"Tagging files is about 30 years overdue," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, in a Tuesday interview, about the feature that will let users label files with keywords for more efficient document organization and faster search. "Good for Apple that they're trying to make a traditional personal computer easier to live with. Maybe it will stimulate others to [add file tagging], and not just Microsoft, but the online storage services, too."

Mavericks will include OS X versions of the iOS Maps and iBooks apps -- continuing Apple's practice of seeding Macs with software that originated on the iPad or iPhone -- as well as a new password maker and manager, iCloud Keychain. As the latter's name suggests, it's stored in iCloud, Apple's free online storage and synchronization service, and from first glance, could threaten the livelihood of top-tier third-party programs like 1Password and LastPass. And like the new iOS 7, Mavericks will automatically update programs in the background that were purchased in the Mac App Store.

But the main push of OS X Mavericks, at least based on Federighi's presentation, was aimed at the No. 1 complaint of notebook owners: Too-short battery life.

OS X Mavericks lets users tag files in the Finder, on iCloud, or as shown here, when saving a document. (Image: Apple.)

While Apple introduced new MacBook Air ultra-light laptops that boasted nearly twice the battery life of previous models -- thanks to the new notebooks' use of Intel's latest Core processors, code named "Haswell" -- Apple's baked a host of under-the-hood technologies into Mavericks, including app, memory and disk management features that Federighi promised would result in longer battery life and better performance. (Apple has published an overview of Mavericks' core technologies in a PDF document available from its website.)

Gottheil agreed that Mavericks emphasized what he called the "computing fundamentals" of battery life and performance. "It looks like they have a critical mass of new features and changes," he said. "Overall, [Mavericks] looks really good."

Mavericks will also come with a new edition of Apple's Safari browser, version 7, that promises better performance; adds several new features, including a sidebar that displays bookmarks; and shifts to a model pioneered by Google's Chrome where each tab is a separate OS process for better stability and security.

The big Maverick omissions Monday were price and availability. Apple simply ignored the former and vaguely described the latter as "this fall."

Apple charged $19.99 last year for the Mountain Lion upgrade, a 33% discount from the two prior versions, and it's safe to assume that same price -- or that as the maximum -- for Mavericks, if only to give CEO Tim Cook future bragging rights on OS adoption.

"Thirty-five percent of our users are using the latest version, are using Mountain Lion," boasted Cook yesterday. "That compares with Windows 8, which is struggling to get to five [percent]."

According to Web analytics company Net Applications, Mountain Lion's numbers are actually higher than Cook reported: Last month, Mountain Lion powered 42% of all Macs that went online. Windows 8, meanwhile, accounted for about 4.7% of all copies of Windows.

A release date is harder to estimate, but clues from the last two upgrades, Lion and Mountain Lion, may help. In 2012, Apple offered registered developers their first look at OS X Mountain Lion on Feb. 16, then 161 days later shipped the upgrade. 2011's schedule was similar, but with 147 days between OS X Lion's developer preview and release.

Plugging in those timespans -- 147 and 161 days -- results in a Mavericks retail launch somewhere between Nov. 4 and Nov. 18.

Apple may beat that -- the also-delayed OS Leopard launched Oct. 26, 2007, still the record for a release late in a year -- and could feel pressure to do so because of the looming holiday sales season.

Also lacking yesterday was any information on the traditional free upgrade program Apple runs for customers who buy a new Mac with a soon-to-be-supplanted version of OS X. That program, called "Up-To-Date," usually kicks off when Apple narrows a release date to a specific month.

This article, Apple dumps big cat OS X nicknames, zips lips on price and release timetable, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "Apple dumps big cat OS X nicknames, zips lips on price and release timetable" was originally published by Computerworld.

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