by Jean-Louis Gassée

Operating systems don’t age well. Some have better genes than others or they have more competent caretakers, but sooner or later they are stricken by a cancer of bug fixes upon bug fixes, upgrades upon upgrades. I know, I lived inside two OS sausage factories, Apple and Be, and was closely associated with a third, PalmSource. I can recall the smell.
The main cause of OS cancer is backwards compatibility, the need to stay compatible with existing application software. OS designers are caught between yesterday and tomorrow. Customers want the benefit of the future, new features, hardware and software, but without having to jettison their investment in the past, in their applications.

OS architects dream of a pure rebirth, a pristine architecture born of their hard won knowledge without having to accommodate the sins of their fathers. But, in the morning—and in the market—the dream vanishes and backwards compatibility wins.

Enter the iPhone.

The iPhone OS, iOS, is a Macintosh OS X derivative…but without having to support Macintosh applications. Pared down to run on a smaller hardware platform, cleaned up to be more secure and tuned for a Touch UI, iOS is the dream without the ugly past. Tens of millions of iPhones, hundreds of thousands of applications, and billions of downloads later, this is a new morning without the hangover.

And now we have the iPad, another iOS device. (I’ll omit the newer Apple TV for the time being.) 8.5 million iPads were shipped by September, a mere six months after its introduction. The installed base will reach 14 to 15 million units by the end of this year.
To paraphrase the always modest Apple PR boilerplate phrase (“Apple ignited the personal computer revolution in the 1970s …”) the iPad re-ignited the marginal tablet category.

After more than 30 years of stalled attempts, the tablet genre has finally gelled. We see a flurry of tablet announcements from Asus, HP, Samsung, Dell, Archos, and many others, using Windows 7, WebOS, and Android. Surprisingly, we have yet to hear a pundit declare 2011 ‘The Year of The Tablet’. It’ll come.

On the other hand… Apple held a Back to the Mac event at its Cupertino HQ last week. As the name implies, Apple wants to make it clear that it’s still committed to personal computers. (You can see the full keynote here…but that’s 90 minutes. A tongue-in-cheek, adjective-laden 104 second montage gets to the essence here.) The iPhone may generate half of Apple’s revenue, but the event reminded us that Macintosh desktops and laptops are a $20B/yr business—a business that’s growing faster than the rest of the PC industry. Apple made a point of showing how the iPad, after taking its genes from the Mac, was feeding DNA back to its progenitor by way of the Touch UI that will appear in the release dubbed “Lion”, OS X 10.7.

During the Back to the Mac presentation, two prayers of mine were answered: A Macintosh App Store and a smaller laptop. The App Store has received the expected “walled garden” critique, but having seen how difficult it is for small Mac software developers to get retail shelf space or to make money selling their wares on line, I like the idea. A few days ago, I downloaded a neat little utility to silence the startup sound on my new 11” MacBook Air. How much did the developer make? Zero, it’s freeware; the programmer didn’t want to spend the time and money to set up a commercial site. How much would I have paid for it from a Mac App Store? Less than $5, more than 99 cents.

As for the 11” MacBook Air, Walt Mossberg, WSJ’s tech guru, penned an insightful review that’s neatly summed up in its title: “MacBook Air Has the Feel Of an iPad In a Laptop”.

So: A clean, fresh iOS; we’re not abandoning the Mac…What are we to make of these competing messages? My theory:

  • Today’s PC operating systems have advanced cancer
  • Personal computers as we know them are here to stay
  • Apple will move to something like an iOS Macintosh

Easier said than done. Steve Jobs remembers well the trouble Apple had getting apps for the first Macintosh, the painful failures of Lotus Jazz, the lame Mac software from Software Publishing Corp., creator of the best-selling PFS: series for the Apple ][. Ironically, some of the best software came from Microsoft—the word frenemy hadn’t been coined yet but retroactively fits. So, just like the iPhone App Store made the iPhone, the Macintosh needs a marketplace, an agora in preparation for the transition.

But a transition to what?

An evolution of the iPad? Certainly not something I saw at Il Fornaio, one of the local Valley watering holes. There, a very serious woman had her iPad standing on the official Apple keyboard dock, writing and, from time to time, raising her hand and touching something on the screen. As Jobs pointed out in the keynote above, it’s an ergonomic no-no.
Now, turn to the laptop. As one of my colleagues says: “It’s dark inside the box.” It’s what the machine does that matters, not what’s inside. Indeed. Imagine a port of OS X on an ARM, or A4, or AX processor, or even a Loongson CPU for that matter. If the right applications have been ported or adapted or, even better, created de novo for the platform —and made available through the App Store—would we object?

But, you’ll argue, “Aren’t these processors much less powerful than Intel’s?” Ask an iPad user: The machine feels swift and fluid, much more than a conventional PC.

Yes, there are no heavy-duty apps such as Photoshop or AutoCAD for the iPad. (AutoDesk publishes an AutoCAD companion app for the iPad and the iPhone.), but who knows? Adobe might be tempted to do for Photoshop what Apple has done for its OS: Scrap the past and build a modern Photoshop that’s written from the ground up.
Intel processors suffer the same type of cancer that afflicts operating systems. Their instruction sets and, therefore, their hardware, power consumption, and cost are beset by the tortuous need to stay compatible with existing code while offering an endless procession of new features. Intel has tried a fresh approach at least three times: the iPAX 32 in the early 80s, the Itanium (promptly renamed Itanic, a political compromise hammered out to keep HP’s PA architecture out of contention), and a brief fling with ARM called the XScale. Each time, the company (or the market) decided backwards compatibility was the way to go. Intel’s position is transparent: They believe that the might of their technology and manufacturing will bulldoze the cost and power consumption obstacles of the x86 architecture.

(We’ll note in passing that there is no Wintel in smartphones. For its Really Personal Computers, for its Windows Phone 7 devices, Microsoft is all ARM.)

Compare the bulldozer approach to what Apple did when it designed the A4, the “dark inside” of the iPad. Apple’s next Mac processor could be a multicore (or multi-chip) ARM derivative. And the company has proven time and again that it knows how to port software, and its support of the Open Source LLVM and Clang projects give it additional hardware independence. We all know the Apple Way: Integration. From bare metal to the flesh, from the processor to the Apple Store. Hardware, OS, applications, distribution… Apple knows how to control its own destiny.

Tomorrow’s MacBook Air might have even more of the “Feel of an iPad in a Laptop” that Walt Mossberg detected. The tablet and the laptop could run on the same “dark insides”, with the same software, and the same Touch UI interface. And, for a desktop machine, an iMac successor, we already have the Magic Trackpad for touch input.

(IMCO, the current Trackpad doesn’t feel magical enough: on the two devices I own, the touch input isn’t as reliable, pleasant and “second nature” as it is with existing mice or a laptop trackpads. I gave up after two weeks. I’m not the only one with that view, I’ve asked. And the local Apple Store doesn’t push appear eager to push the device either.)

All this doesn’t mean the x86-based Macs would disappear overnight: high-end Mac Pros, for example, might continue for a while as they do today for applications such as Logic Studio or Final Cut.

If this sounds farfetched, one question and an observation.

The question: Would you bet the longer term future of your $20B Mac business on an endless series of painfully debugged x86-based OS X incremental releases? Or would you rather find a way to move that franchise to a fresh hardware/software platform fully under your control?

The observation: Last week, the other Steve, Ballmer, was on stage at the Gartner Symposium. There, he was asked about Microsoft’s “biggest gamble”. Without missing a beat, as this forceful public speaker never does, he answered: “The next revision of Windows.” Not Windows Phone 7, not the Kinect game device, all near and dear to his heart, but Windows 8. (See here and here.)

He, too, is thinking about the future of the PC business.

JLG@mondaynote.com

PS: As I edited this note, I found this TechCrunch post dealing with the same iPad-Mac convergence.

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