SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Microsoft's Windows Vista may be getting all the buzz, but it's not the only operating system update that will hit store shelves this year.
This spring, Apple Inc. plans to release Leopard, the fifth revision of its rival Mac OS X software. As with previous updates, Leopard will add new features to the operating system, most notably a backup program called Time Machine, which puts a 3-D interface on the process of searching through archived files.
The new features could prove important for Apple. In recent years, the company has made much of the differences between the Mac OS and Windows. Macs are more stable, more secure and easier to use, the company has repeatedly told potential customers.
Consumers appear to be listening. In recent quarters, Apple has repeatedly gained share in the PC market with its growth rates outpacing that of the broader industry. Meanwhile, more than half of all Macintosh computers sold in the United States are being bought by consumers who are new to the platform, either because they've switched from Windows or have never owned a computer before, chief executive Steve Jobs said at the Macworld convention.
But Microsoft Corp. has attempted to address many of Windows' shortcomings with Vista, and some analysts think the company has narrowed the gap with the Mac OS. With the new update, the company has emphasized stability and security. And Microsoft has added a snazzy new interface and features such as a built-in desktop search button that Apple had already incorporated into Mac OS.
For Windows users who might have been considering switching to the Mac OS, Vista may be an excuse not to, some analysts say.
"Some people may say Vista is close enough [to the Mac OS], and that'll be good enough for me," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst who covers the PC industry for research firm IDC.
Apple has said little about Leopard since Jobs previewed the operating system update at the company's developer conference in San Francisco in August. And even then, Apple gave little away about the new software. In fact, Jobs at the time said he was withholding some key features of the operating system for fear Microsoft might try to put them into Vista before it launched.
Still, some of the features he did show could help set it apart from Vista. In addition to Time Machine, Leopard will include advanced 3-D animation that can be used within programs and as screensavers and an updated version of the company's Spotlight desktop search feature that will allow users to search other computers connected on a home network. Leopard will also include a revised e-mail program that will enable users to convert e-mail messages easily into to-do items or memo notes.
The analysts and developers who have played around with Leopard have been impressed by its features, many of which represent a significant advance over what's in Vista, said Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies, a high-tech consulting firm in Campbell, Calif. The problem right now is that consumers don't know about Leopard or what it will offer, he said.
"The marketing burden is on Apple's shoulders," Bajarin said. "Apple needs to seize the moment and start drawing attention to OS X Leopard."
That said, some analysts aren't convinced Vista will have much of an effect on Apple's computer sales no matter how hyped it is or how close it may come to Apple's current Mac OS.
Many consumers have been drawn to the Mac OS by their positive experiences with Apple's iPod music players, analysts say. Others have been attracted by the promise that because Apple controls both the hardware and the software, its Macintoshes are more reliable than Windows-based PCs.
"I don't think Vista will play that much into factors that are driving people toward Macs," said Martin Kariithi, an analyst at Technology Business Research, a consulting firm in Hampton, N.H.
Indeed, some analysts think Vista's launch could be an opportunity for Apple. To run the full version of Vista, many consumers will need to buy new, more powerful computers. Since they're already in the market for a computer, such consumers may be easier to persuade to look at what Apple has to offer, Bajarin said.