Apple invite hints at next OS release

Apple Back to the Mac media event invite

Is this the face of Mac OS X 10.7?

While its focus has certainly been on the iPad and iPhone this year, it would appear there are signs that Apple remembers it’s in the computer business as well.

Engadget brings the news that the company is sending around invitations to its preferred media outlets for an event next week at its Cupertino, CA headquarters. The theme: Back to the Mac.

And what’s peaking out from behind the company’s logo in the invite? One of the few remaining big cats yet to grace the disc of a release of Mac OS X?

We’ll all find out what’s on the company’s mind next Wednesday at 10:00 am Pacific time. But in the meantime, here are some thoughts on what this could mean to Apple partners.

Call it a bold prediction, but that mane-adorned kitty in the invite picture would seem to suggest that the company is going to share a first glimpse at Mac OS X 10.7 next week, and it’s probably going to be nicknamed Lion.

Assuming Lion does make its first public appearance next week, it comes at an important time for the company. Assuming it follows typical Apple form and actually hits the street at least six months after Apple first publicly shows it, Lion could first appear sometime between next spring and fall. That’s looking to be about two years after 10.6 Snow Leopard, itself an extremely minor revision from 10.5 Leopard, which will turn four years old next year. And it looks certain that 10.7 will go public on or after the ten-year anniversary of 10.0 Cheetah’s launch on March 24, 2001.

After a solid but ho-hum Snow Leopard, Apple needs to turn up the heat and get some interest going with Lion, especially as the success of Windows 7 in the market and in reviewers’ eyes means it can’t market itself as “not Vista” and have that count as innovation.

The company also needs to do some reinvigoration of its hardware line – particularly on the notebook side where its hefty price tag is increasingly challenged by its aging Core 2 Duo architecture at the low end. And remember when the MacBook Air was darling product of the company, the media and the whole world? The Air was last updated in May. Of 2010. That’s about 95 years old in computer years. Sure enough, the loudest chatter in the always-active Apple rumour mill surrounds a revised MacBook air that attempts to straddle the line between notebook and netbook.

Partnering with Apple can be a bit of a stormy romance. On one hand, perhaps more than any other company in the industry, it inspires passionate and loyal customers. And its partners, especially boutique Apple specialists, are often among the most passionate and loyal of its legendary fan base.

On the other hand, Apple can be a very frustrating partner. Transparency is never a strong suit from the notoriously secretive vendor, and then there’s that whole pesky “Apple Store” thing and its seeming lack of interest in business clients, unless it’s working directly with them.

But with its hardware lagging behind lower-priced competitors in feeds and speeds, an operating system that hasn’t seen a major facelift in years, and most of its attention on its notoriously channel-inaccessible mobile consumer products, Apple needs to move quickly to make sure even its most loyal partners don’t look to greener pastures.

Two predictions for next week’s event to feel pretty confident in: Jobs will rock the black mock turtleneck and blue jeans; and there will, as usual, be “one more thing.” Beyond that, it’s between Steve and his Reality Distortion Field.