Apple may delay the release of OS X 10.9 because it's pulled engineers from the team to help in a final push on the next version of iOS, according to online reports.

A delay won't affect Mac sales, and by all measurements, shifting bodies to iOS -- a much more crucial Apple property -- makes all the sense in the world, an analyst argued.

Wednesday, both the AllThingsD blog and Bloomberg reported that Apple management had shanghaied developers from the OS X group and put them to work on iOS 7, the revamped mobile operating system set to debut at next month's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), which begins June 10.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball first reported on the resource reallocation a month ago.

If accurate, the move would be a repeat of a 2007 maneuver when Apple pushed back the launch of OS X 10.5, aka Leopard, from June to October. Apple shipped Leopard Oct. 26, 2007, months later on the calendar than either its predecessor, OS X Tiger, or the three succeeding editions, Snow Leopard (August), Lion (July) and Mountain Lion (July).

Months before the expected launch of Leopard, Apple went public with the news of its delay, explaining that it stole engineers from the desktop OS team to work on the iPhone's first operating system, dubbed iPhone OS. Apple later renamed the operating system to "iOS."

"Finishing [the iPhone OS] on time has not come without a price ... we had to borrow some key software engineering and QA resources from our Mac OS X team," Apple said in April 2007. "As a result, we will not be able to release Leopard at our Worldwide Developers Conference in early June as planned."

Apple has said next to nothing about either OS X 10.9 or iOS 7, other than to confirm that it plans to provide previews to WWDC attendees, and by implication all registered Apple developers, during the conference.

The near silence of Apple on OS X 10.9, particularly the lack of a developer preview so far this year, has signaled that, unless Apple had radically departed from its usual timetable, it would ship the next OS X in early November, or in the same ballpark as Leopard.

Last year, Apple said it was going to stick with an annual release cadence for OS X, following the path trod by Mountain Lion, which launched a year after Lion. But even a several-month delay would not significantly disturb that tempo, analysts have argued.

A later debut for OS X 10.9 won't matter in the long run, echoed Ezra Gottheil, analyst with Technology Business Research, in a Thursday interview.

"There's really no need to maintain a rapid release schedule," Gottheil said of Apple. "They've said they would, and they would like to for all kinds of reasons, including staying current, staying in the news, but a delay wouldn't affect Mac sales."

The Mac, like PCs overall, is battling larger issues than the lack of a new operating system, said Gottheil.

Personal computer sales dropped by historic levels in the first quarter, falling 14% year-over-year, according to research firm IDC, which blamed a "perfect storm" of factors, including longer stretches between computer purchases by consumers, a saturation in developed countries like the U.S. and -- most importantly -- a shift in dollars from computers, including Macs, to tablets and smartphones.

And if Apple needs engineers to wrap up iOS 7 on time, shifting resources from OS X is absolutely the right move. "iOS is far more important to Apple than OS X," Gottheil said. "By any kind of measure, whether it's attention from the stock market or revenue, you name it, iOS is the place for Apple to put their efforts. It's more important that they get that right than OS X out on time."

Even many Mac owners may care less about the availability of OS X 10.9 than whether Apple decides to continue support of the 2011 edition, Snow Leopard.

Under its previous unwritten and unspoken policy of patching only "N" and "N-1," where N was the newest edition, Apple should have halted support for Snow Leopard last summer when Mountain Lion debuted. Instead, the Cupertino, Calif. company has continued to issue updates for OS X 10.7, most recently in mid-March.

Come this fall, or whenever Apple ships OS X 10.9, Apple may be forced to keep patching Snow Leopard -- at that point it would be N-3 -- because it will still account for approximately 22% of all Macs in October, and 21% in November, according to projections based on usage data published by Net Applications this week.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Read more about operating systems in Computerworld's Operating Systems Topic Center.

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