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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – Apple Inc.’s computer business may seem like it’s taken a back seat lately to its flashy younger siblings, the iPod and iPhone, but Macs are still a key part of the family.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is expected to use his speech at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday to highlight the upcoming release of Mac OS X, showing that Apple remains a computer company even after dropping ”Computer” from its name in January.

The slickness of its designs notwithstanding, the key to Apple’s success and reputation for ease of use is its software and how well it integrates with its hardware.

Millions of Microsoft Windows users who don’t own a Mac have now experienced Apple’s touch by using iPods and managing their music through the iTunes jukebox program.

If it weren’t for his iPod, Andy Ahmed would have never bought a MacBook Pro laptop last winter – his first Macintosh.

”The iPod opened my eyes,” said Ahmed, of Foster City.

The wildly popular portable player cracked open the door for many like Ahmed to a computing platform they would have never considered in the past. Along with Apple’s growing number of gleaming retail stores and its catchy ”I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads splashed across TV and the Internet, the attraction to Macs has never been stronger.

It’s not all hype either.

After years of relatively flat sales, the number of Macs sold started to grow significantly in 2005. Mac shipments jumped 38 percent from 3.3 million units in Apple’s fiscal 2004 to 4.5 million in 2005. Then they climbed 17 percent to 5.3 million in 2006.

Analysts predict Macs will continue a double-digit growth rate, outpacing the industry, as Apple gets a boost from at least two more product debuts this year: the iPhone on June 29 and the operating system upgrade due to be released in October.

The availability of the upgrade to Mac OS X, dubbed Leopard, was pushed back from this spring because Apple diverted some resources instead to the iPhone.

But Jobs made it clear he wasn’t ignoring it either: ”We think it will be well worth the wait,” Apple said in announcing the delay.

Apple won’t discuss the ”top-secret” features or other products it might announce at the Worldwide Developers Conference, but it’s already known that Leopard’s features will include Boot Camp, which lets users of Macs with Intel Corp. chips install Windows on their machines.

What remains unclear is how Apple will integrate Boot Camp and how much flexibility it will give users to toggle between the competing operating systems.

A test version of Boot Camp was introduced as a free download a year ago and appears to have contributed to Mac sales already. Its planned inclusion in Leopard could lead Apple to more prominently market the feature and win yet more converts, said Charlie Wolf, who tracked Apple as a Wall Street analyst for two decades and now is president of Wolf Insights Inc., an investment consultancy.

Already, Apple says about half of the computers sold at its retail stores are to people new to the Mac platform.

”Boot Camp removes a barrier to switching,” Wolf said. ”It’s like an insurance policy for Windows users.”

It certainly was for Ahmed, a clinical research manager.

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