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As Microsoft celebrates the launch of Windows Vista, software engineers at Apple are busy putting the finishing touches to a new operating system of their own.

Apple is expecting big things from Leopard, the sixth instalment of its popular OS X operating system; to the extent that the banners at Apple’s 2006 developer conference wittily referred to Leopard as “Vista 2.0”.

Some analysts expect Apple to launch its new operating system as early as this spring, but whether Leopard will upstage Vista remains to be seen.

“Depending on when Leopard comes, it could be a bit of a spoiler for Vista,” says Van Baker, analyst at market research company Gartner.

Long relegated to bit player status in the market for personal computers, Apple has seen a pick-up in Macintosh sales in recent quarters, thanks in part to interest generated by the runaway success of its iPod music player.

In some ways, when it comes to technology, Apple is already ahead.

“An awful lot of what Microsoft has done is a knock-off of the latest release of OS X,” says Mr Baker.

Leopard will replace Tiger, Apple’s existing version of OS X, which already contains many of the features Microsoft has been trumpeting as part of its Vista push, such as the ability to load software “widgets” and an enhanced media player.

Apple may also have an advantage when it comes to security, an area where Microsoft has promised big improvements. Apple’s previous operating systems have thus far managed to avoid the security problems that have plagued past Microsoft releases.

While both Leopard and Vista will share some similar features, such as improved back-up capabilities, Leopard’s full feature list remains a closely-guarded secret.

In spite of its recent strides, Apple still commands only about 2.9 per cent of the worldwide PC market, according to Gartner. Even if Mac sales were to surge as a result of the Leopard launch, it is unlikely Vista sales would take a big hit.

While Apple is winning converts among consumers, it lacks a strong presence in the business market, which accounts for the majority of worldwide computer sales.

“Apple doesn’t chase the volume purchase agreements with Fortune 500 companies,” Mr Baker says. So long as that is the case, the potential for Leopard to act as a spoiler for Vista will be limited.

Apple could still realise big benefits from Leopard, however. The PC market’s sheer size means that small gains in market share could translate into big increases in revenue for Apple.

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