Will Mac OS X and iOS Merge?
Few months ago a Wall Street analyst predicted that Apple will start merging Mac OS X with iOS into a single operating system starting in 2012 and completing in 2016. The new OS would run on all of Apple devices from the iPhone up to the iMac. This comes in the context of the recently released Mac OS X Lion, which comes with features inspired by iOS, such as the Launchpad, full-screen apps, and an even greater focus on multi-touch gestures.
In the Microsoft camp Windows 8 is essentially doing just that, except they still draw the line at smartphones (though this may change as they become more powerful). Windows 8 is meant to run on both full-size computers and tablets, and supports both a tablet friendly user interface, and a classic Windows user interface.
It was later suggested that Microsoft is making a winning move by doing this, and that this will compel Apple to merge their OS’s in a similar manner as well.
Does this make sense, and how likely is it to happen?
Arguments In Favor
Smartphones and tablets are becoming powerful enough to rival desktop PCs for many tasks, and it is a given that they will at some point soon be able to run full-scale operating systems like Mac OS X, and even applications like Photoshop. That’s perhaps the strongest argument for the merge making sense, especially if an increase of computing power coincides with the willingness of users to use tablets and smartphones even for more advanced and productive computing tasks (which docking can help with).
As for the likelihood of the merge happening Apple did increasingly bring the two OS’ closer together, and beyond just a few UI similarities. As an AppleInsider user Dick Applebaum pointed out the two OS’s share a lot of common code, to the point of the two looking like two variants of a single operating system. Linux users are already quite familiar with the concept of multiple variants of a single OS, but the commonalities between Mac OS X and iOS are probably even greater than those between certain Linux distributions.
In light of that it seems plausible that Apple will merge the two projects to at least consolidate their development and marketing efforts, even if they keep maintaining separate “distributions” of the OS for Macs and iDevices, which would mainly differ in the user interface, and a selection of pre-installed systems and software.
It is also very much possible that as mobile devices become more powerful they reach the point at which the extra computing power that desktop and notebook PCs can offer will only matter when it comes to high end operations typically measured in the time it takes for the computer to complete them, such as 3D rendering, transcoding video, and so on.
For example, iMovie 2011 will probably run just fine on an older MacBook Pro despite it not being the latest and greatest machine in terms of performance. The performance difference is mainly felt in how long might it take to import and export movies, or how complex and large a project you can handle without it becoming too sluggish.
This indicates a certain threshold of possible performance that a device can cross for it to become “good enough” for just about any task. Beyond that threshold we stop asking if the device is capable of doing something, and instead merely focus on “how fast can it do it”. Once all mobile devices cross that threshold the idea of a single OS for all of them, even if in somewhat different configurations, might make a lot more sense.
On the other hand, there are a few counter points to the merge. Even if they maintain “distributions” of a single OS making it a single OS might somewhat dilute their focus on making an OS operate perfectly on a specific device. If they start worrying about how a particular feature for Macs might affect the experience on the iPhone it might negatively impact the quality of both.
It is also an issue of scale. The basic OS frameworks will by necessity have to operate well on the least powerful of the devices they are meant to run on (which would be the iPhone) while still allowing the user to take full advantage of excess computing power that might be available on a much more powerful iMac.
Finally, there is also a simple question of whether it is even necessary to merge the two operating systems to achieve the goal of a seamless user experience across all devices. As I’ve argued before what users probably care about the most is the data, and seamless access to data. What application we use to view and edit this data is less important if you can access the data both from a less powerful smartphone, which can merely consume and make minor adjustments to it, and a Mac which offers a complete set of editing capabilities.
In that sense Apple may have already accomplished or is on the way to accomplishing this with its iCloud service. While some might see the iCloud as a step in the direction of a single OS it might actually invalidate the need for a single OS by already offering almost all of the real benefits of having one.
Of course, we will see what course Apple takes, and how the Windows 8 experiment pans out. One thing seems assured though. Regardless of whether we have multiple OS’ for different devices cloud computing will continue to make the differences seem less important than they used to be. Most people don’t think in terms of operating systems anyway, but in terms of devices. It may well be that it soon won’t matter at all what Apple does with its operating systems so long as they ensure that things continue to “just work” as expected.