The forgotten child at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference this year was the device that made the company what it is in the first place: the Macintosh computer. CEO Steve Jobs was on stage for an hour and a half, minus a few minutes for guests, and didn't mention the Mac once. It was almost an entirely iPhone 4 affair.
Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) shed the "Computer" portion of its name in 2007, a recognition then that it was moving beyond just its Macintosh line into devices. But the Mac remained an important part of Apple's family. When it pulled out of the MacWorld conference after 2009, one of the arguments Apple made was that it would make its own Mac news announcements on its own schedule.
Yet when the schedule for WWDC was announced in April, Mac developers noticed that Apple had dropped the Mac software category from its Apple Design Awards. The awards would only cover applications for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad available in the App Store.
The Apple Design Awards (ADA) are a highly coveted prize and recognized as major honors for third-party developers. An Apple Design Award is like an Oscar for an actor, and Mac developers were upset.
One Mac developer wrote to Steve Jobs to complain, since Jobs's e-mail address is no secret and he's been increasingly prone to writing back. Jobs responded: "We are focusing primarily (though not exclusively) on iPhone OS this year. Maybe next year we will focus primarily on the Mac. Just the normal cycle of things. No hidden meaning here."
In addition, the WWDC show was themed "the center of the app universe," and the bulk of developer sessions focused on Apple's handheld devices, with very few for the Mac.
In the run-up to the show, there had been speculation that Apple would announce refreshes to the Mac Mini and MacBook Air, both of which have gone without an update for more than a year. Neither has happened.
Apple did not return a request for comment.
Paul Kafasis, CEO of Rogue Amoeba, a developer of Mac audio software, said he understood Apple's rationale, even if he wasn't crazy about it.
"I think it made sense what they were doing. The Mac is not getting a huge update right now so why focus on that when there is not a lot to talk about?" he told InternetNews.com.
"The ADA was not a hard thing for them to do. There's been a lot of good Mac development in the past year that could have been focused on. It's something Mac developers have always aspired to win. Not having that as a possibility stung a little bit," he continued.
Still a great success
It's not that the Mac has suddenly become irrelevant. Indeed, it's doing better than ever.
The research firm iSuppli recently noted that Mac enjoyed 32.4 percent year-over-year growth in the first quarter of 2010 with 2.94 million units sold, a faster growth rate than the 22.6 percent rate for the overall PC industry. "Apple's Macintosh line is benefiting from the halo effect of the enormous popularity of its iPhones and iPads," iSuppli analyst Matthew Wilkins said in a statement.
So can Jobs be taken at his word? Analysts think so.
"I don't think it's a lack of Mac support," said Mikako Kitagawa, senior analyst for client computing at Gartner. "They really didn't have much to talk about. The business will go on as it has been. But the newsworthy stuff is on the phone side, not on the computer side."
Danielle Levitas, senior consumer product analyst with IDC, agreed, explaining that even though the Macs may be on the back burner at the moment, they remain an important part of the company's business.
"They had a new phone to announce and they didn't have new Macs to announce, and everybody was abuzz about the phone because of the leaks prior. And to be fair, Apple is having really good overall share in their Macintosh business, gaining share overall, worldwide and in the U.S.," Levitas said.
Kitagawa suggested the lack of emphasis on the Mac could simply be a case of finite resources, with Apple opting to focus on where it is strongest.
"If they have a limited allocation of resources and developers, then [Mac] will become a secondary priority to the media tablet and smartphone. I can see them moving resources to the media tablet and iPhone," she told InternetNews.com.
Levitas, meanwhile, thinks Jobs wants to keep developers from defecting to Android.
"Jobs can take all the potshots he wants at the Android ecosystem but there needs to be attention focused on the smartphone market. The software for the Mac is not evolving as fast, and it doesn't need to in a way. I think he's focused on what's growing and what will attract and retain developers," she told InternetNews.com.
Neither analyst believes Apple will let the Mac languish, but it might fall into secondary status like the iPod, which doesn't get as much development work as the other handheld devices, largely because Apple has evolved it to a point of maturity.
"Macs have been growing because of the success they've had in these [other] categories. It's a matter of what's growing faster, what drives margin," Levitas said. "I think if you polled Mac developers, it would probably be the minority that felt let down."
Rogue Amoeba's Kafasis noted that last year, Mac OS X 10.6 got a lot of attention since that was when it was released, and 10.7 isn't in any state to be shown.
"Next year I expect there to be plenty about Mac OS 10.7 and there will be plenty of Mac sessions," he said. "They cleaned up a whole lot of bugs in 10.6 so now it can sit on the back burner for a year while they focus on the iPhone, so hopefully next year we will see new features in 10.7."