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Mac OS X on the way

New, faster operating system rolls out in 2 weeks as test version

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SAN FRANCISCO — The first publicly available version of Apple Computer Corp.'s long-awaited next-generation operating system will roll out in two weeks, chief executive Steve Jobs announced Tuesday at a conference for digital publishers and designers.

Called Macintosh OS X (the "X" representing the number 10), the operating system for Apple's Macintosh computers is expected to be significantly faster and more reliable than the current Mac OS 9. It also is widely regarded as the key to Apple's future ability to hang on to, perhaps even gain, ground in the market for desktop computers.

"Mac OS X is the future of the Mac," Jobs told a packed audience attending the Seybold Seminars conference. "This is really important to us."

Most consumers, however, will have to wait until early 2001 to buy the new operating system. What will be released on Sept. 13 is a test version of Mac OS X, to be used by hardcore Apple fans who will help the company "debug" the software of potential flaws. The company, based in Cupertino, Calif., has not said how it will distribute the test version, but most Apple-watchers anticipate they will be able to download Mac OS X off the Internet.

Apple has made test versions of Mac OS X available to select software developers since February.

"It's slick," said Eric Wood, a developer for R.R. Donnelly & Sons in Chicago, who got to test drive the new operating system.

Bundled with its new line of desktop computers, including the PowerMac G4 Cube, unveiled six weeks ago, Apple is hoping the new operating system will help it sustain the momentum it gained from its popular iMac line of candy-colored computers introduced two years ago.

Apple last year captured 5 percent of the market for operating systems, software that controls the basic functions of a computer, such as storing files and routing commands to printers. That is up "dramatically" from 4.1 percent in 1998, according to Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software research at International Data Corp.

Apple, however, continues to face formidable competition against Microsoft Corp., whose Windows operating system enjoyed a 90 percent market share last year, according to IDC.

In recent years Apple has faced a new worry — Linux, an operating system that is free to download from the Internet and is compatible with most personal computers, including the Macintosh. Last year, Linux claimed 3.9 percent of the market for desktop computer operating systems and is poised to steal the No. 2 spot from Apple within two years, said Kusnetzky.

For now, Linux is handicapped by the fact that it remains awkward for non-geeks to use, said Chris LeTocq, research director at the Gartner Group in Los Altos, Calif. The Macintosh, by contrast, is known for its friendly, intuitive interface.