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Week in review: Two tech shows, minus icons

Macworld and CES were most notable for who wasn't there, while the search market heated up. Also: Obama to postpone digital TV switchover?

This year's most prominent tech trade shows were as notable for who wasn't in attendance as for what was unveiled.

Despite tons of rumors circulating about what we could expect to hear from Apple this week at Macworld, one announcement caught everyone off-guard. After insisting for months that CEO Steve Jobs' health was a private matter, Apple changed its tack in the face of widespread speculation that Jobs' weight loss had contributed to his decision to skip the conference.

On Monday, the company issued a statement that Jobs was suffering from a hormone imbalance that was "robbing" proteins from his body. That news cheered Apple investors, who dreaded far worse news regarding Jobs' health after a report last week that his health was "declining rapidly."

However, now that it has cleared the air and addressed the state of Jobs' health, Apple may be forced to give regular updates, according to corporate governance experts. And, they add, the company will need to be very careful, as it was on Monday, about how it words those statements.

Steve Jobs, hormonally imbalanced but apparently otherwise fine. James Martin/CNET News

While there are no legal guidelines for companies to follow in making decisions about how and what to disclose involving the health matters of their executives, Apple may have decided that enough was enough following reports predicting its CEO's imminent demise.

Despite Jobs' absence, .

As CNET News reported first, Apple announced plans to lift DRM technology from its entire catalog of 10 million iTunes songs by the end of April. Eight million songs are DRM-free as of today, and labels will be allowed to charge different prices for their songs, in a departure from the previous iTunes Store policies.

iTunes users can upgrade their music libraries with a click of a button. For an additional 30 cents per song, consumers can receive a DRM-free version of their existing tracks at a 256Kbps rate.

In the hardware arena, Apple completed its notebook refresh with the introduction of a 17-inch MacBook Pro, which brings the unibody design, trackpad button, and new displays to the company's largest laptop. It will cost $2,799, the same price as the current 17-inch MacBook Pro. Apple is using a new type of battery that it says will allow the notebook to get between seven and eight hours of battery life, depending on which graphics chip is running.

The company also announced new versions of the iLife and iWork software suites.

As far as Macworld's future without Apple's participation, the show will go on in 2010. But it likely will have a much different look. IDG World Expo, the company that puts on Macworld, hopes to get a clearer idea itself from a town-hall style meeting it opened to Macworld attendees to solicit ideas for the future of the show.

One middle-aged man in a faded NeXT T-shirt raised his hand for the microphone. If IDG wanted to save Macworld, he suggested, it should hold a "schwag-fest," where Macolytes could bond over swapping tchotchkes from Macworlds past.

Whether IDG will take up his suggestion is unknown. But IDG has a few of its own ideas for next year's show. An executive revealed that next year's Exhibit Hall at Macworld will be free for those attending this year's show; a similar pass cost $25 this year. But there is no plan right now beyond 2010. The executive also confirmed CNET's report that Apple's decision caught IDG totally by surprise, speaking often of the "new business reality" that has been thrust upon the company in a very short period of time.

Dueling show in the desert
Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the Consumer Electronics Show kicked off without Bill Gates' customary keynote. Instead, the Microsoft part-timer was replaced by CEO Steve Ballmer.

Ballmer used his address to announce new deals for Windows Live that will see Microsoft's search engine become the default on PCs from Dell. He also touted a deal with Verizon Wireless that was leaked earlier in the day (more on those deals below). In addition, the company is counting on two Halo game releases this year to help keep the Xbox 360 going in the right direction.

But in perhaps the biggest announcement of the night, Ballmer said that Microsoft is ready with a beta version of Windows 7 and showed off some of its key consumer features. Microsoft said it was immediately available for technical beta testers and those in Microsoft's TechNet and MSDN developer programs and would be made publicly available Friday. The company still isn't officially committing to a final release in time for this year's holiday season, although it's clearly aiming for that.

Top Windows executive Bill Veghte said the company is telling PC makers that Windows 7 might or might not be ready in time for this year's holiday season.

"I'm telling them that it could go either way," Veghte said in an interview with CNET News. "We will ship it when the quality is right, and earlier is always better, but not at the cost of ecosystem support and not at the cost of quality."

Veghte also said that the economy is factoring into his marketing plans for Windows, which is in the middle of an advertising push initially estimated at several hundred million dollars over several years.

In search of
Microsoft is hoping two new distribution deals will give its Live Search a much-needed boost. The company announced a global deal with Dell that will make Live Search the default search engine and will bundle the Windows Live toolbar on the bulk of Dell's consumer and small-business PCs sold over the next three years. That deal is in addition to a five-year pact with Verizon Wireless, news of which slipped out earlier Wednesday.

These are the latest efforts for Microsoft, which has been trying--and struggling--for the past four years to build a search business that can substantively rival Google. But the latest market share numbers indicate that Microsoft is falling even further behind. Searches at Windows Live Search fell 16.7 percent year over year, giving Microsoft 9.1 percent market share in the U.S. in November, according to Nielsen Online figures released earlier this week. Google's searches rose 21.7 percent, for 64.1 percent market share, and Yahoo's searches dropped 1.4 percent from November 2007, for a 16.1 percent share.

Microsoft has been pretty clear that it is no longer interested in buying Yahoo, but a group of investors is reportedly putting together a buyout deal for Yahoo that would call for Microsoft's financial backing. Such an arrangement would ask the investment group to pay a premium of about 20 percent to Yahoo's current share price, which closed Wednesday at $13 a share, for the entire company.

The investment group would take Yahoo, which would have a $20 billion market cap under those terms, and simultaneously sell its search and marketing business to Microsoft under its previous terms presented in June, according to the report.

Yahoo may have fallen out of favor with Wall Street after the failed Microsoft buyout bid, but that doesn't mean you can count Yahoo President Sue Decker out of the running for CEO, people familiar with executive search say.

Decker has undergone two full rounds of in-depth interviews with Yahoo's board, according to sources. And, in executive recruiting circles, more than one in-depth interview with an internal candidate signals a strong contender.

A number of industry players and major Yahoo investors had discounted Decker as a viable CEO candidate for the struggling Internet search pioneer, following Microsoft's failed buyout bid of $33 a share for the company.

But one source familiar with the search noted: "She has always been a strong candidate."

A decision may be coming soon.

Also of note
President-elect Barack Obama's transition team asked Congress to consider postponing the upcoming national switch to digital television, warning that more congressional action is needed to address potential problems...A man who posted a negative review of a chiropractor on Yelp, suggesting that the doctor was dishonest, is now facing a defamation lawsuit...Meg Whitman has been talked about as far back as March as a candidate for governor of California. Now there's more evidence that the former eBay CEO will actually run.