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Monday, March 26, 2007, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Apple's Leopard reported to be nearing final candidate stage

Concerns that Apple Inc.'s next-generation Leopard operating has fallen behind schedule are overblown, according to one Wall Street analyst, who says checks indicated the software is rapidly approaching completion.

In a report distributed to clients on Monday, American Technology Research analyst Shaw Wu downplayed a recent report from Taiwanese-based DigiTimes, which speculated that Apple may push the release out to October in order to increase support for dual-booting Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Vista.

"From our analysis, we believe these concerns are overdone and believe that Mac OS X Leopard will ship on time in the 'Spring' timeframe, or Apple's June quarter," he wrote. "Our sources indicate that Apple's latest beta build has made noticeable improvements in stability and functionality from previous builds and that Apple is likely one or two upcoming builds away from reaching 'final candidate' stage to be released for manufacturing."

Wu noted that Spring technically runs from around March 20 to June 20 every year, which would give Apple nearly three more months to meet its self-imposed ship deadline. However, he acknowledged that a concerns amongst developers is that they are still in the dark on the software's "top secret" feature set.

"At some point, we believe Apple needs to 'publish' or enable these so-far undocumented features for wider beta testing," Wu wrote. "Many are hoping, including us, that it is virtual machine technology similar to that offered by Parallels, Inc. that allows seamless operation of Mac OS and Windows simultaneously. If so, we believe this would serve as a major catalyst for Mac sales."

For its part, Apple has publicly maintained that it will not introduce its own embedded virtualization technology with Leopard, indicating instead that it is very pleased with Parallels' solution and doesn't feel the need to compete. The company, however, has been known to intentionally mislead with some of its forward looking statements, as was the case in the lead up to the launch of the Mac mini.

In October of 2004, Apple chief financial officer told a teleconference of analysts and members of the media that Apple had decided not to compete in the sub-$800 PC market and instead would focus its efforts on its then booming music business and related products.

"We don't think we can make a lot of money there," the exec said. He must have missed the memo, because less than three months later Apple gave birth to the sub-$600 and sub-$500 Mac minis.

In his note to clients on Monday, Wu reiterated a Buy rating on shares of the Cupertino-based Mac maker, emphasizing his belief that the company is morphing into a four-prong (Mac, iPod + iTunes, Apple TV, and iPhone) vertically integrated consumer electronics firm.

"We see several catalysts in the quarters ahead, including Mac OS X Leopard, new Macs, new iPods, new movie and carrier partners, and lower cost cell phones," the analyst wrote.