Mac Musings

iOS and the Future of Mac OS X

Dan Knight - 2010.06.24 - Tip Jar

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There are some crazy rumors going around about iOS (formerly known as the iPhone OS) and the future of Mac OS X. Ever since Apple announced its agenda for the 2010 Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), which included no Mac sessions and no Mac software awards, panic mongers have been running around like Chicken Little predicting that OS X is falling.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Steve Jobs himself confirmed it. Yet the rumor mill continues to grind up facts and churn out nonsense.

The two rumors are that Apple is already planning to replace Mac OS X with iOS, essentially killing off Macs the same way the Mac once displaced the Apple II. The other is that the two operating systems will become unified over time.

I won't say that these things won't ever happen, but they are not going to take place in the short term. Future versions of OS X will incorporate lessons Apple has learned from iOS, but Apple is not going to phase out Mac OS X, because the Macintosh side of its business remains profitable. Creating a "Mac" that won't run Mac apps would kill its goose that has given golden eggs for so many years - and that kind of goose you let die a natural death.

I can see iOS ideas coming into OS X soon, perhaps with Mac OS X 10.7. For instance, instead of launching to the Finder, which is based on the aging desktop metaphor that Macs have used since 1984, it might launch to a screen akin to that found on the iPhone and iPad. The entire display would become a launcher, with no need to even show the Dock.

At the same time, Apple could move ahead with simplifying document storage. Where the Mac OS assumes the user understands a filing system, iOS dispenses with that. Documents are just there. Apps written for OS X 10.7 could work like iOS apps so users don't have to wonder where their documents might have gone. Apple has already done this in OS X with iTunes and iPhoto, and it's a logical progression to apply it to other apps as well.

Running iOS Alongside OS X

Before the next version of OS X, I could see Apple creating an iOS emulation mode for Macs, either as an application or as a virtualized environment - much like users now run Linux or Windows via virtualization and old timers (those of us using OS X 10.4.11 and earlier on PowerPC Macs) use Classic Mode.

Apple has already done the grunt work of creating iOS emulators for developers, but instead of being designed to emulate an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, the virtualized iOS would be designed to take full advantage of Mac hardware - bigger displays, different graphics processors, multiple cores, lots of RAM, and loads of hard drive space. Perhaps the Mail and Safari apps would share preferences with their OS X counterparts, making it easy for users to choose one or the other on the fly.

The iOS environment would be written for the x86 processors found in modern Macs, allow for "universal" iOS apps that include ARM and x86 code, and have an ARM emulator for non-universal apps. With dual-core CPUs and beyond, there's plenty of power for emulation. And thanks to the iOS already supporting three different screen resolutions (the original iPhone, the iPad, and now the iPhone 4 with its doubled resolution), a lot of iOS apps should already support different screen sizes.

How This Benefits Apple

Why would Apple consider adding an iOS environment to OS X? Two reasons come to mind. The first is that it would create a new market for iOS apps, and Apple keeps a tidy 30% commission on every app sold. The second is that it would create a bridge to iOS devices for Mac users. After all, if your Mac is already running iOS apps, why would you consider any smartphone but an iPhone, any MP3 player other than the iPod touch, or any other tablet than the iPad?

There's a synergy that could be at work here, and the inclusion of an iOS mode in OS X could also make it easier for iPhone and iPad users to choose a Mac as their next computer rather than yet another Windows machine or a Linux box.

Over time, Mac users might find themselves using more and more iOS apps and less Mac OS X programs, just as Classic Mode let longtime Mac users migrate to OS X without abandoning familiar apps. At some point in the future, it's conceivable that iOS could become the default mode and "classic" OS X would be virtualized within iOS, letting Mac users migrate to the new OS without abandoning the OS X apps they need for productivity. (I can't see InDesign or Quark XPress as iOS apps for a long time, if ever.)

The Golden Goose Times Five

Apple is the only one of the early personal computer companies (the others are Tandy/Radio Shack, Commodore, and Atari) still making and selling computers, because it knows how to nurture its golden geese. The Apple II goose saw the company through from 1977 and into the early Macintosh years, finally dying naturally in 1993 when the last Apple II models were discontinued. (Apple even sold an Apple IIe card for certain Macs starting in 1991, which helped facilitate migration to the Macintosh. It was finally discontinued in 1995.)

The second golden goose is the Macintosh, which got a slow start, eventually reached 10% of the PC market, nearly died in 1997, but recovered and is now stronger than ever. Apple twice reinvented the Mac's hardware, switching from Motorola 680x0 to PowerPC to Intel x86, and it's OS once, replacing the Classic Mac OS with OS X. Along the way it has maintained a good level of backward compatibility - PowerPC Macs could emulate 680x0 CPUs, and OS X included a Classic Mac OS environment up through version 10.4.11.

It's not inconceivable that Apple could make a transition to iOS for Macs, although that would fundamentally change the nature of the Macintosh (some argue that the switch from the Classic Mac OS to OS X did the same thing). It's something that could happen eventually, but I don't see this as some secret Apple goal. If it happens, it will be a gradual process, and if iOS someday displaces OS X, Mac OS X will be allowed to die a natural death.

Apple's third golden goose is the traditional iPod, which appears to have reached its peak of popularity, but it should continue to provide Apple with a solid revenue stream for years to come. After all, some people don't need all the bells and whistles of iOS devices.

Goose number four is the iTunes Store, sired by the iPod. It begat the App Store and now the iBooks store. Thanks to iTunes being available to Mac and Windows users, there's a huge market for music, videos, and more. This not only helps sales of iPods, it is a profit center in its own right.

And then there were five, starting with the iPhone. iOS devices leverage the iPod and iTunes technologies but add the power of a computer. Despite competition from Microsoft and Android, the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad are the leading devices in their categories. And even if Android someday has a bigger market share in the smartphone and/or tablet markets, Apple will continue to profit from its technology, just as it has always done in the past. With its profit margins, Apple doesn't need to own a market to thrive.

Four of these five geese are alive and well today, and they will continue to provide Apple with profits for years to come. If the iPod or Macintosh dies off someday, it will only be because something better has displaced them. I can't see Apple killing off either goose before its time.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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