Computing Schizophrenia and the Future of the Mac

Apple started the transition from Mac OS X to OS X in 2011 at WWDC. They followed it up right after by using OS X throughout the Lion product pages on their website. This year Apple will complete the transition in OS X Mountain Lion by changing the branding in the OS itself.

This isn’t the first time that Apple changes the name of an important part of their business. A similar rename happened at WWDC in 2010. After the introduction of the iPad, a few months earlier, Apple renamed iPhone OS to iOS to reflect the inclusion of the iPad1 in its line-up of touch-based devices.

So, what warrants dropping the Mac prefix from the name of the operating system that runs exclusively on the Mac?

John Gruber, after his tête-à-tête with Phil Schiller, remarks:

It seems important to Apple that the Mac not be perceived as an afterthought compared to the iPad, and, perhaps more importantly, that Apple not be perceived as itself considering or treating the Mac as an afterthought.

Apple is showing a renewed effort in OS X by further aligning it with their vision for the future: iCloud —the cornerstone of everything Apple does for the next decade as Steve Jobs explained it. This is truly the biggest transformation of OS X in the past decade. Right now, Apple is restyling OS X with concepts and apps from iOS, but in a way that makes sense for the desktop. They are getting rid of “inconsistencies and oddities that have accumulated over the years, which made sense at one point but no longer [do]”.

Apple has gone through a lot of trouble to show that the Mac and OS X are still very much alive. However, we shouldn’t have any illusions about where Apple believes the future lies. iPhones, iPads, powerful handheld devices that, before long, will replace our desktops and laptops for everyday tasks.

While devices may come and go, I believe one thing will remain constant for the foreseeable future: the environment in which we are using these devices. People in offices will continue to work at desks, using keyboards and screens. People on the move or on the couch will be more inclined to using handheld devices. The reason is that touch feels natural for one set of tasks, while a keyboard and a trackpad are more suited for another set of tasks.

In 2010, during the Back to the Mac event, Steve Jobs explained why the Mac would not gain touch-based input through the screen:

We’ve done tons of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical. It gives a great demo but after a short period of time, you start to fatigue and after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off. It doesn’t work, it’s ergonomically terrible.

Apple has strong opinions about touch- and non-touch-based form factors and interfaces. A 9.7-inch hand-held iPad is perfectly suited for touch, an 11-inch MacBook Air, standing on a desk, is not. But the apparent incompatibility isn’t limited to the hardware. Using a touch screen is fundamentally different from manipulating the pointer on-screen with a mouse or even a trackpad. The area of a touch target in iOS has a minimal size that is larger than many mouse targets in OS X. Common gestures —although always optional— like swiping an item sideways off of a list to delete, have no counterpart in a mouse-controlled UI.

Apple is the company in its industry that has the keenest sense of where they are headed in the coming years —largely thanks to Steve Jobs. They haven’t been investing this heavily into OS X, with the introduction of non-trivial features like iCloud, Notification Center, and GateKeeper to throw in the towel in two years, and ship all their hardware with iOS, or for that matter, the other way around. If anything, touch is the killer feature of the iPad. Touch is here to stay.

No, Apple is not integrating iOS and OS X like Microsoft is doing with Windows 8. Windows is supposed to become a no compromise design, where you can access both the Aero and Metro UIs whether you are using touch or the mouse. Steven Sinofsky, of the Windows Division at Microsoft, summarizes Windows 8 design like this:

Windows 8 brings together all the power and flexibility you have in your PC today with the ability to immerse yourself in a Metro style experience. You don’t have to compromise! You carry one device that does everything you want and need.

I don’t believe for a second that Apple is ever going to allow you to use a mouse (or preferably a trackpad) with a touch interface or, more jarringly, use touch on an interface designed for the mouse. As far as Apple is considered, these two UI designs are conceptually separate, each with its strengths and weaknesses.

However, where Microsoft and Apple do see eye to eye, I believe, is in the fact that the hardware will become a unified whole. Creating a mash-up like Windows 8 is not the only solution to a single device that serves a user’s desktop and handheld needs. It’s not because the environments in which we use iOS and OS X are fundamentally different, and as a consequence, the user interfaces are different, that the hardware needs to be different. Or, put another way, it shouldn’t be necessary to carry around different devices to accomplish all your different tasks throughout the day.

Suppose a tablet, with a form factor not much different from an iPad, running iOS and iOS apps when it is being used in a handheld environment. Then, when it is brought into a desktop environment with a screen, a keyboard and a trackpad, it seamlessly switches to OS X, giving you access to the desktop versions of your applications. What I’m suggesting is the integration of iOS and OS X into a single device, on top of a shared operating system. The fact that iOS already shares its underpinnings with OS X to a degree, certainly appeals to the feasibility of this integration.

The keyboard, trackpad and screen would all work wirelessly by levering two pieces of technology that have recently been introduced by Apple: AirPlay mirroring, that came with Mountain Lion, and low-power Bluetooth 4.0, that can now be found in all of its recent products. The display can be streamed to an upgraded Thunderbolt display, falling back to a Thunderbolt connector for doing the heavy lifting and to charge the battery. Another essential piece of the puzzle is where do you store documents so they are accessible to the applications running on iOS and OS X? iCloud already solves this problem to some degree, but what happens when you switch environments without an internet connection present?

This reasoning would fit with Apple’s efforts in building versions of their apps2 for iOS and OS X that are often very similar in style. It fits with Apple speeding up the release cycle of OS X to coincide with an iOS release around summer. And it warrants dropping the Mac prefix and calling it OS X.

Just as Microsoft is, very publicly, pushing to release their first take on this integrated computing model, Apple may not be very much behind in their release schedule. Apple has been working on this reinvention of the tablet for a lot longer then Microsoft has. However, because of its largely different approach in both software and hardware —Apple will never release a tablet that needs fans for cooling— its route may take some more time to materialize.

Apple’s vision for the future is not to replace desktop computing with touch computing on a tablet, but to subsume it. It’s about unifying iOS and OS X, instead of creating a single OS that has the characteristics of both.

  1. I’m conveniently ignoring the iPod Touch, which was introduced in late 2007 —well before the iPad. It’s possible Apple didn’t want to feed the rumor mill by changing the name to iOS before the iPad was introduced. However, in 2007, a future tablet wasn’t exactly on anybody but Apple’s radar yet. It’s interesting to ponder why Apple would go with the name iPhone OS, when Steve Jobs himself admitted during an interview at AllThingsD in 2010, that the idea of the tablet predates the iPhone. 

  2. Pages, Keynote, Numbers, Garageband, iMovie, Calendar, Contacts, Safari, Mail, Reminders, Notes, … 

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