The road to OS Xi: Where iOS and OS X suffer a teleporter accident and merge
Remember The Fly? That's the one where Jeff Goldblum tries to teleport but instead gets his genes all mixed up with a fly.
"[T]he Telepod computer, confused by the presence of two separate life-forms in the sending pod, merged him with the fly at the molecular-genetic level."
Look at Lion/Mountain Lion and iOS; it's easy to see that the two operating systems are growing closer together, starting to converge. If you're willing to put on your crazy hat (tinfoil is optional), you might consider the following thought experiment. What if Apple consolidates the two into a dual-mode OS that supports both mobile and desktop use?
Developers have seen OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion pick up numerous mobile features like Game Center, Reminders, and Notification Center. Apple is implementing an iOS-like sandboxing approach to application development with high levels of permission requirements. Apple is integrating share sheets (a UI metaphor that helps users route data from one app to another using a centralized delegation mechanism) in a manner similar to iOS.
Even Xcode, the bulwark of traditional "general computing," is being assimilated. Starting this spring, Xcode is now available only through the App Store, distributed in a compliant sandboxed app bundle. When even the main developer IDE for the Mac is subject to the onslaught of the future, Apple's transformation of the Mac OS has few obstacles ahead of it.
Sure, Tim Cook has warned us about the fate of the toaster fridge. "I think anything can be forced to converge," he said last week during the Apple Q2 financials call (referring, in this case, to Windows 8 Metro). "The problem is that products are about trade-offs, and you begin to make trade-offs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn't please anyone. You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user."
I don't think Cook's statement rules out a unified OS that adapts, depending on the user's situation, instead of forcing users into a single UI for mobile and desktop access. Under the hood, there's already very little separating the core technology of OS X and iOS. I also think Apple is smart enough not to force desktop users into an interface better suited for use on the road, and vice versa.
The key isn't creating a chimera that tries to please everyone and suits no one. Instead, I think Apple is capable of delivering a satisfying computing experience that works in multiple environments. Call it "situational computing."
It's not as if they haven't explored this arena before. Add in the ever growing importance of AirPlay, which allows interfaces to be wirelessly mirrored outside one device to another display, and iCloud, which sublimates data out from any single device and syncs it to all your computing platforms, and you're diving into an amphibious core technology, one that can adapt to sea or land as needed. (To stretch a metaphor to near-breaking.)
In many ways, OS X is "too much computing" for a great proportion of Apple's consumer audience. A simplified user interface would suit many needs, and cover nearly everything users need to accomplish -- although I do believe they need more sophistication than an iPad currently offers.
It's just that OS X Lion and Mountain Lion is a bit of overkill. Yes, OS X (and going back to Mac OS 9) offers Simple Finder, but even dropping most of the complexity of the file management environment doesn't change the inter-application experience, which remains fully OS X complex.
iOS as it currently stands, however, will never be a perfect solution for students creating research papers. It's designed for serial unitasking, not the multiple research threads and tasks of academic work.
Hopping between a text editor and Safari is horrific, and even good apps like Daedalus Touch or Writing Kit at best provide Frankensolutions. In fact, most creative work requires app-to-app switching: creating pictures in Photoshop, editing text in Word, updating spreadsheets in Numbers, and presentations in Keynote.
I trust that Apple can create a multi-windowed version of iOS, simplifying the need for a multitasking interface. I also believe Apple can leverage wireless ways to treat every monitor as a potential extra screen.
This display outreach feature already exists with Apple TV and AirPlay in current iOS deployments. So why not extend it to all Macs and all displays? The third party Reflection app, which I have been using a great deal since it debuted, provides a hint of the possibilities.
That's because AirPlay isn't just about mirroring. It's also about adding extra screens. You already see this in a few games like Real Racing and Bartleby 2. The device acts as the controller, and the AirPlay destination works as a secondary screen.
These apps represent just the start of where the technology might take off, especially if Apple introduces a hardware touch-based Apple TV. I should mention that the hardware TV is a possibility that I'm a bit dubious about; others here at TUAW believe in it a lot more than I do. I'm happy to be proved wrong.
But think about taking AirPlay to the next level, passively expanding its functionality to offer to transfer control to your iMac or Thunderbolt Display when your iPad comes in range of AirPlay Bonjour services.
Imagine redirecting iPad computing to your home screen while sitting at your desktop, with your data and your application state travelling back out with you as you once again hit the road, courtesy of iCloud. Imagine a slide-in laptop shell that transforms the iPad's retina display back to desktop/laptop mode for more intense work sessions when needed.
The thing is this: I don't see any big roadblocks preventing this vision from being implemented today, with current tech and current software capabilities. It's as if all the pieces are there already, just waiting for Apple to give the signal to go and productize them.
Sure, Cook has warned us away from Toaster Fridges. But do you think Apple has made a habit of developing Toaster Fridges ever? I trust Apple. And I think they could easily go in this direction, delivering high quality consumer technology.
When Apple says "No", we hear "maybe." This is not the first time we've gone to the Apple dance. It is classic Apple. They make fun of some tech (netbooks, tablets, whatever) and then they create the definitive version of that device, building something that redefines the market forever.
Sure, this entire post is wild speculation -- but remember this: the capacity for implementing this kind of development path is already there. There's nothing I've discussed that's groundbreaking or would require huge R&D. Will iOS and OS X merge into OS Xi? Maybe. Can they? Definitely. Perhaps Apple will surprise me and deliver this unicorn? Possibly.
What do you think? Jump in and leave a comment with your thoughts.
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