Apple Inc.’s latest operating system software, Snow Leopard, will go on sale this Friday.

The Mac OS X version 10.6 software will debut at Apple’s retail stores and authorized resellers in the US. Apple’s online store is now taking pre-orders.

Snow Leopard’s release comes days before its promised September launch. It precedes by two months the launch of Microsoft Corp.’s next operating system, Windows 7.

Among Snow Leopard’s improvements is built-in support for Microsoft’s Exchange Server software, so Apple programs for e-mail, calendars and contacts could become more useful in corporate settings.

Apple said Snow Leopard is half the size of the previous version, freeing up to 7 gigabytes of storage space when installed. It requires a minimum of 1 gigabyte of RAM and runs on Macs using an Intel processor.

Users of Mac OS X Leopard, or version 10.5, can upgrade to the latest version for $29 for single users and $49 for a family pack of five users. For Apple owners using the Tiger operating system, or version 10.4, on an Intel—based Mac, switching to Snow Leopard costs $169 for single users and $229 for a family pack.

Consumers who buy a qualifying Mac from June 8 to Dec. 26 can purchase the Snow Leopard upgrade for $9.95. Users must request an upgrade within 90 days of purchase or Dec. 26, whichever comes first.

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