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Where's the Mac? Apple's WWDC an iPhone world

Noticeably absent from Monday's developer conference was any mention of an impending update to Apple's desktop operating system.

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Steve Jobs spent his WWDC keynote talking about Apple's mobile devices, and none of it on Mac OS. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--At WWDC Monday there was something amiss besides the overloaded demo-disrupting public Wi-Fi. At the conference for Apple developers, there was not a single mention of the company's core desktop operating system, Mac OS X, nor any hint of when the next version would be coming.

It's very possible the closed-door sessions this week will include a lot of Mac OS talk. It's also possible Apple could give those developers a preview this week or next. Or that Apple could be waiting to host an entirely separate event for the Mac, as it does for the iPod, iOS, and more recently, the iPad. But in light of the pattern of the last few years, and the company's growing mobile device and mobile platform businesses, Mac OS X's absence Monday is still curious.

By this time last year, we had seen at least two previews of OS X 10.6, starting with WWDC 2008. Developers got an even more detailed peek at WWDC 2009, and by September 2009 it was ready for customers. That pattern has been true of the last several desktop OS releases from Apple: a preview a year or so ahead of the actual release. It's helpful because it gives developers time to work with it as well as a chance to show the public, even briefly, that Apple is constantly thinking and moving its technology forward.

Which begs the question: What about 10.7? Apple hasn't even hinted at it. The average time between releases for Apple's desktop OS has been 18 to 24 months. If we haven't even seen a preview yet, it seems like the time between 10.6 and 10.7 could be longer than 24 months. So does that mean late 2011? Early 2012?

Apple has not yet responded to a request for comment.

The clues were there before the event that OS X might get short shrift this week. It is a developer conference, which means all developers for Apple products: Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod, etc. Yet in the listing of what was on tap, eagle-eyed developers noted that Apple had nixed the design awards for Mac OS developers.

That alone is not enough to think Apple is not as focused these days on its desktop OS. But CEO Steve Jobs was also quoted at the D8 conference last week regarding the future of PCs--referring to all computers with full desktop operating systems, as opposed to tablets or smartphones--saying he clearly sees them fading from mainstream use soon.

"When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that's what you needed on the farms." Cars became more popular as cities rose, and things like power steering and automatic transmission became popular.

"PCs are going to be like trucks," Jobs said. "They are still going to be around." However, he said, only "one out of x people will need them."

Windows 7 is finally tied or at least very close to Mac OS X at this point in terms of capabilities and features. After lagging behind as OS X grew and Windows XP stagnated, Windows 7 now holds its own with a new interface, new features that provided overall better performance, and far better security than in XP. Sure, Microsoft has the market share advantage, but Apple has long had the innovation edge. It would be out of character for Apple to let them catch up.

Apple is good at pushing its software and hardware forward and not accepting the status quo. And the company has the resources--as the world's most valuable tech company--to continue to do that. Apple has what is already perceived as a premium desktop computing experience, and it charges premium prices for it. Looking ahead, it could be tough to justify charging premium prices if your competition is riding so close on your heels.

There are practical reasons to ride the Mac OS train for as long as possible too: the Mac business is still very profitable. Apple sold 3 million Macs last quarter--and that's with a speed bump and a few minor changes. And even though that trails far behind Hewlett-Packard, Acer, Dell, and others, Apple still rakes in the most profits on its desktops and laptops. While Apple has just 7 percent of PC industry revenue, it takes in 35 percent of the operating profits.

Apple does have a lot of irons in the fire right now, including two devices in incredibly hot categories: the iPad and iPhone. Apple may indeed have something ready to go and just ran out of time during the presentation yesterday that was packed to the gills with iPad and iPhone information. But why even let the public entertain the idea that Apple is taking its eye off Mac OS X? We could have done without at least one of those promotional videos. And they had a captive audience of developers and the public; why waste that?