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The Mystery of the Leopard Ship Date: Solved

[The scene fades in on a dark street. A man is slumped against a streetlight, its yellow glow illuminating his rumpled suit and battered fedora. He straightens, and as he walks off down the sidewalk, subtly taking in his surroundings, he speaks in a low, rough voice, hardened with frustration.]

Thursday night, and I had failed. I’d been working for a regular client, a petite redhead who called me every so often. Sometimes when she needed information. This job sounded easy – find out when Apple Computer was going to release Leopard, the latest version of their operating system. But getting sources to sing about Apple was always hard. They lived scared – scared of losing jobs, contracts, or more. I didn’t blame them, since Apple kept its secrets better than any company in the city and dealt harshly with anyone who talked. Or rather, that was the word on the street. No one knew what really happened to those who were caught squealing – they just went away.

Apple was good, you had to give them that. Leopard itself wasn’t a secret, everyone knew it was coming, and Apple had even said, “in the spring.” But those in the know were saying it couldn’t possibly be spring, that Leopard just wasn’t ready. Timing is everything in this world, and my client wanted that inside information so she could be first to market with a stable of books about Leopard. Smart girl, and I hated to disappoint her. Word had just filtered out that Apple had delayed Leopard until October, and everyone on the street knew. I wasn’t looking forward to breaking the news to her.

On my way to her office, I stopped for a whiskey at a bar I frequent. It’s near the university, but it’s too dark and seedy for the students. Frat boys sometimes come in loud groups, but they don’t stay long. It’s not that sort of bar. I pulled up a barstool next to a stranger who immediately introduced himself with the friendly bravado of the Midwesterner. “Bruce Carter, Senior Systems Engineer at the Center for Creative Computing at the University of Notre Dame,” he said.

“Nice to meet you, Bruce. You’ve heard about Leopard?” I was fishing, but perhaps I could take something else back to my client.

“Yup. It doesn’t affect us much, since when we were thinking it would be a June release timeframe for Leopard, we were really on the extreme far edge of our summer testing and deployment schedule. So we had strategically decided to stay with Tiger for another year, on existing equipment, for the studios and public computing areas.”

He paused for a long drink of beer, and a regular customer sat down on my other side. Andrew Laurence is a Systems Analyst at the University of California, Irvine, and he occasionally helps me out on jobs. He’d been listening to Bruce too and chimed in.

“Bruce is right. For those of us doing the managed deployments such as staff desktops and labs, this is probably a relief more than anything else. Such installations should be plotted out according to budget schedules and are predicated more by the age of the old equipment than something as ephemeral as an OS ship date. In these cases, admins don’t like to use the .0 release, but to wait for the inevitable .n release that puts the ship back on an even keel. These coordinated refreshes are usually done during summer, so the procurement process takes place between April and June; you can nudge it a bit, perhaps to take advantage of a software release, but then you’re committed to that release. A lab refresh might be spurred by the
requirements for a specific application, sometimes at the faculty’s insistence. In this case, that’d probably mean something like Final Cut or CS3 – so if or when either of those require Leopard, then a lab will refresh to follow.”

I bought them both another beer, and settled back to listen as they continued to explain. Academic computing guys like to talk.

Andrew continued. “So the delay means that Leopard won’t upset the labs, won’t dislodge the desktop refresh plans, and that only the eager beaver individual users will fall on the .0 sword. Sounds good to me.”

Bruce agreed, “This is actually better for most education calendars. I doubt that very many, if any, educational customers were planning to go to Leopard if it had shipped in June, and I equally assume that there were many sighs of relief that we are not going to see an equipment change in the middle of the summer that would require a shift, at least of new machines, to 10.5. We really hate doing split OS level deployments. We did it once with Tiger when new G5s came with Tiger, and while doable, we don’t like to manage that if we don’t have to. Now when I was using PLATO…”

I cut him off. Once guys like him get started on old computer systems they’ve used, they don’t stop. Don’t get me wrong, I like listening, and sometimes I even pick up details that help in cases. But I didn’t have that kind of time tonight. “So why’s Apple doing this?” I asked. “I mean, I know the statement said it was because the iPhone project took resources needed for Leopard, but was that wise?”

Andrew nodded. “Yes. Given Apple’s newfound financial diversity with the iPod and iTunes, I doubt it’ll impact them much.” He paused for a quick drink, and Bruce jumped in.

“There is a lot of ranting about the iPhone getting preferential treatment at the expense of Leopard, but delaying Leopard would seem to make sense. Apple already has a solid OS out in Tiger, and Leopard is likely to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It’s not like the delay is really leaving a void, at least from my perspective of not knowing Apple’s hardware rollout plans, whereas delaying the iPhone would leave not only a large void, but would be an even bigger PR crash.”

I thanked them for the scuttlebutt and headed for the men’s room. As I was coming out, I bumped into a cheerful developer I know, Ken Case of The Omni Group. Developers are careful about what they say, since they know more and worry about Apple’s wrath. But I asked him if Leopard’s delay was frustrating anyway.

“Yes and no,” he replied. “Leopard has a lot of great features that we’re really looking forward to taking advantage of in our products, so it’s hard to be patient for it to ship, and then, once it does ship, it will be hard to be patient while our customers upgrade to it.”

I interrupted. “So how will you know when people have upgraded?”

He beamed at me. “We’ll be keeping a close eye on, which tracks what version of Mac OS X our customers are using among other things. If they choose to tell us, of course.” He looked pleased with himself, and continued. “But as much as we’re looking forward to Leopard, writing good software takes time, and we’re glad that Apple is taking the time to deliver a quality product rather than rushing it out the door before it’s ready. I’m also glad that we’ll get a chance to see a feature-complete version of Leopard before it ships, so that we can test our software with it before our customers start using it.”

Taking my leave, I headed back out into the night. Everyone I’d spoken with so far was happy about the delay. I wondered if my client would be equally happy. Or if she’d call again, given that I hadn’t produced the goods.

Walking toward her office in the business district, well away from the rougher blocks where I spend most of my time, I passed Tekserve, one of the few independent Mac stores left in the old part of town. They were closed, but a dark figure was perched on the steps. I kept him in the corner of my eye as I walked past. In my line of work, you can’t be too careful.

As I passed, the figure spoke my name. I turned quickly, sliding my finger around the trigger of the warm steel in my pocket. It’s not always good when people identify me on the street. But my hand relaxed as I recognized his silhouette. David Lerner, Tekserve’s owner. I sat down next to him. “What do you think?” I asked, knowing that he’d understand instantly.

“I’m personally disappointed, because I was looking forward to Time Machine.” This wasn’t surprising from a man who signs his email, ‘May You have 1000 Backups and Never Need One.’

“From a business standpoint, the delay may actually be helpful, because it separates the Adobe CS3 release from the OS update, and removes the vagueness over when Leopard will ship. The upside is that people who’ve been holding off buying new machines will probably stop waiting, but the downside is that the expected sales boost from Leopard will come in what’s already our busiest time of year instead of our traditionally slower summer months. It should also mean that developers will really be ready with updates to their applications that are fully compatible with Leopard, and even take advantage of its new features. Like Time Machine.”

I grunted agreement. We sat companionably on the step for a few more minutes, staring at the darkness. “You need better lights out here,” I said. He grunted back, and I said goodbye.

One more stop before I could go home and drown my sorrows. The light was still on in my client’s office, as I knew it would be. I knocked, and let myself in. I could see instantly that she knew everything, but if anything, she looked relaxed. I shrugged, and told her what I’d learned about the responses from the education market and from a developer, and how a retailer thought users would react. She listened intently, her eyes locked on mine as I spoke. When I finished, I said, “I expect you won’t be needing my services any more,” and turned to go.

She stopped me at the door. “Wait. Sure, the cat’s out of the bag, or rather, it’s still in the bag until October. And sure, like David Lerner, I’m a little concerned about the cash flow during the summer, since we were anticipating strong sales of our Leopard titles.” She paused, and I watched the decision about what to say next flit across her pretty face.

“But honestly, I’m relieved,” she went on. “We’ve got other projects in the works, and the delay means I can take a summer vacation. I haven’t had a proper summer vacation in years.” She looked up at me. “Do you ever take vacations?”

I said that I didn’t generally make a practice of it, but that I wasn’t opposed to the concept. She swallowed hard, and looking down at the carpet, said that she might have some more work for me in a few months.

“In the summer?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, straightening and again looking me in the face. “In the summer.”

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