The next version of Apple's OS X operating system could be arriving much sooner than anyone has anticipated. Financialwire.net quotes sources at Apple who are pointing at end March as a likely launch date.

Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard was originally due to have arrived in time for the Apple World Wide Developer Conference ( WWDC ) which is being held on 11-15 June.

Think Secret says the reason for the early release is that OS X's programmers are wrapping up development much faster than they expected. The previous version of the OS, dubbed Tiger, was launched at the end of April 2005.

Features and secrets

Apple CEO Steve Jobs previewed Leopard during his keynote speech at WWDC 2006 last August.

He showed off several new features including Time Machine which enables Mac users to go 'back in time' to restore files that may have been deleted several weeks or months previously. Leopard is also promising multiple virtual desktops with Spaces, a real-time animation engine called Core Animation, plus heavily enhanced versions of Mail, iChat and iCal among others.

Apple is also expected to unveil a new look for its OS dubbed 'Illuminous' which extends the mirrored black look of existing Apple apps like Front Row into other areas of the OS.

Jobs said at WWDC 2006 that he didn't want reveal all of Leopard's secrets in case Microsoft tried incorporating them into Windows Vista which launched at the end of January. Apple accused Microsoft of stealing many of its ideas for Vista at WWDC 2006. Commentators have pointed to obvious similarities in Vista's Aero, Mail, Calendar, Photo Viewer, Movie Maker, Gadgets and other apps, leading to uncharacteristic outbursts from Microsoft founder Bill Gates on NBC and CNN.

One thing Apple is expected to include in Leopard is support for Blu-ray disc burning. Mac rumor sites are expecting Blu-ray burning Mac Pros to debut at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show in Las Vegas, which runs from 14-19 April. Apple has been a long-time supporter of Blu-ray, but hasn't offered OS support for the high definition format so far.

All quiet on the Leopard front

However things have been unexpectedly quiet on the Leopard front of late, Apple presumably reasoning that trying to punt is OS would be a mistake in the middle of the Vista PR firestorm. To give you one example: Jobs sidelined Leopard at his keynote speech at Macworld in January concentrating entirely on yet-to-be-launched iPhone instead.

New versions of the OS have traditionally been unveiled at the San Francisco event, alongside new versions of creative app iLife (which incorporates Garage Band, iDVD, iMovie HD, iPhoto, iTunes and iWeb) and the iWork productivity suite (which includes presentation app Keynote and word processor/DTP hybrid Pages).

Apple watchers reckon that both programs will drop at the same time as Leopard, sparking an upgrade frenzy by Mac fans eager get their hands on the new software and hardware expected in the run up to Easter.