by Jean-Louis Gassée
Two weeks ago, I argued that iOS will evolve into the operating system for future incarnations of iMacs and MacBooks. The comments on the article provided abundant food for thought, so much so that I decided to argue the opposite point of view: Yes, OS X and iOS share some bits of DNA…but that’s irrelevant. No, iOS will not evolve into an OS X replacement for future iMacs and MacBooks.
The OS hairball is ugly enough as it is. Why try and merge two feature sets, two philosophies? More lines of code inside the OS. That’s what the world needs!
Take a look at this:
And now this:
Same company, but two very different views of personal computing.
Today’s Macintosh is the result of more than a quarter century of evolution, refinement, fixes, and additions. It’s highly functional but complicated, perhaps needlessly so. Ask most Mac users if they know what this Finder button is for:
Or ask about Exposé, Spaces, Stacks in Grid or Fan view… The first two are helpful for advanced users who work with a large number of documents and windows at the same time. As for the Grid and Fan, I’m not a fan, I think they add new modes without providing a payoff for the investment in learning.
Or try the joy of writing UNIX commands in a Terminal window:
defaults write com.apple.Dock showhidden -bool YES
defaults write com.apple.finder QLEnableXRayFolders 1
Both are cute and harmless. The first causes the Dock icon of an app to become translucent when the app is hidden. The second adds a clever flourish to the Quick Look of a folder, letting you peek at the folder’s content through its semi-transparent cover.
See Mac OS X Tips for more such neat, well-crafted features that you can add and subtract almost ad infinitum—if you have the need or the lust. Or, depending on the type of user you are, the tips present a mind-boggling array of functions, buttons to click, keyboard shortcuts to memorize, uncountable ways of doing things that aren’t always coherent.
That said, Apple’s personal computers are doing just fine, Consumer Reports and others invariably rate them high, their market share grows year after year. One is tempted to resort to a post hoc ergo propter hoc justification: Adding features adds market share.
Looking at the iPad’s Home screen, we see the other extreme. Apple’s tablet is so “transparent” that most users, this geek included, forget that it doesn’t have a windowing system. Yes, it has a Dock, but there’s no Finder, no windows, no file system, no sidebar. Just icons, applications that launch and quit without delay. Downloading and installing applications is simple (although finding them isn’t always easy. I think the App Store needs curation and better discovery tools; see a past Monday Note on this very topic here).
We iPad users lead a simpler, cleaner life. Why would we want the bewilderment of a slower, more complicated OS? The answer is as old as mankind: Because we want to have it both ways. Intuitive and simple but loaded with features, “optioned-out” says the car salesman.
We want both postures: Leaning back to watch NetFlix, and leaning forward to type these Monday Notes.
Today, that’s not really possible. Going back to the example I cited two weeks ago, adding a docking keyboard to an iPad creates awkward ergonomics. You have to lift your hand and reach out and touch the screen to move the insertion point in your text. So, then, can’t we have a Magic Trackpad next to the keyboard, or a keyboard with an integrated trackpad, like a laptop? For the time being, the answer is no. As discussed here, the iPad doesn’t “know” what a pointing device is, it doesn’t have cursor control. A hypothetical clamshell iPad, with a laptop-like folding keyboard and trackpad wouldn’t help.
iOS and OS X may share some DNA, but irreconcilable differences remain. The two OSs serve two different usage models. As a result, Apple is likely to grow them separately instead of trying to bastardize iOS into a one-OS-fits-all. If we have doubts, we can go back and look at what happened with Windows shoehorned onto a Tablet PC.
So: Now that I’ve taken both sides—Yes, iOS will be the Apple OS; No, it won’t—what do I really believe? I think it’s a matter of numbers and layers of software silt.
By numbers I mean the number of iOS devices as they proliferate, and the number of applications available for the platform. iOS will evolve rapidly, partly because of its relative youth and simplicity, and partly due to strong competitive pressure, mostly from Android.
By layers of software silt, I mean the age, complexity, weight, generations of patches and extensions that weigh down OS X (and, for that matter, Windows 7). Competitive pressure is lower, but that’s more a symptom of advancing age.
The lure of a fresh start, of a born again OS that I evoked two weeks ago will be too strong. Over time, iOS version 7 or 10 will become the operating system that runs inside most Apple computing devices. As shown in the recent preview of the next OS X version, “Lion” will borrow iPad UI features such as full-screen apps hiding the windowing system, and a launchpad for Mac apps that resembles the iPad home screen. And, any day now, the iPad will get folders, not a visible file system, but a way to group apps, like today’s iPhone.
The careful application of a common veneer on both Mac and iPads is, in my interpretation, a preparation for a transition to a shared OS, or to variants of the same underlying software engine adapted to the two usage modes: Lean back and lean forward.