It seems clear that the future of computing is multi-device. For the majority of people, being able to seamlessly switch between a phone and a tablet will be the perfect solution — at least for their personal computing needs. However, I am a firm believer that there will always be demand for a large screen computer at your desk or workplace — whether that’s in the laptop or desktop form factor. Macs are here to stay, but I don’t think the operating system will.
At a “fireside” chat with Box CEO Aaron Levie, Tim Cook put to rest rumours that iOS and macOS would merge, saying:
“We don’t believe in having one operating system for PC and mobile. We think it subtracts from both, and you don’t get the best experience from either. We’re very much focused on two.”
He’s right of course. No matter how you try to cram iOS into a Mac, it’s obvious it won’t really work in a satisfying way. Apple won’t merge iOS and macOS. What seems more likely, is that they replace macOS with something else completely.
Since Apple started making their own A-series chips, there have been continued rumours that they will eventually end up building their own chips to replace the Intel processors in the Mac. But there’s one thing that foils this whole idea. MacOS doesn’t run on Apple’s chips. There have also been rumours that Apple is working behind the scenes to port macOS to run on ARM chips, but I don’t think that’s the answer to the future of the Mac.
What seems likely to me, is this: the day we see an Apple processor in the Mac, is the day when we see a completely new macOS. I don’t mean another revision of, what started as, OS X. I mean a complete replacement.
When Steve Jobs launched iOS (then, iPhone OS), he stated that it was based on OS X. More technically, it was built on top of Darwin, Apple’s open-source Unix operating system. Whilst that may be true, what’s blindingly obvious is that since the introduction of the iPhone, all of Apple’s new platforms have been iOS inspired, rather than OS X inspired.
OS X is 15 years old now. If you consider that it’s based on NeXTSTEP, it’s nearing 30 years old. While it’s still a great platform to develop on, it’s getting a little bit clunky these days. Something that’s super-simple on iOS, like setting the background colour of a view, takes a few more steps on macOS. Okay, this isn’t a huge deal. But, when you compare Apple’s four platforms: watchOS, tvOS, iOS, and macOS; you can see that macOS stands out as being a little bit long in the tooth. So, what can these three newer platforms offer us on the laptop/desktop front. Well, I think the key may be in two of them: iOS and tvOS.
iOS is a really great platform for touch-screen devices. It’s also a platform that a huge number of people are familiar with, and enjoy using. tvOS is a really great platform for bigger screens. More importantly, with it’s “focus” UI, it’s also a really great platform for non-touch screen devices.
So, instead of trying to port macOS to the new processors or trying to port iOS to the Mac, I would rather see a merging of tvOS and iOS to produce a completely new macOS. (And, yes. It’s a shame that the re-branding to macOS couldn’t have waited until then!)
Why do I think this would be great? I’ve previously written about how I enjoy the “modal” multi-tasking style of iOS, and how it keeps me focused and productive. Also, now a lot of people are used to the iOS style of working, I don’t think it’s important to keep the traditional “windowed” operating system around. How, then, would we navigate our new operating system? Perhaps controversially, I don’t think we need the cursor any more. How do you simplify a design? Get rid of the things that aren’t essential. I think that bringing the focus UI from tvOS could work really well in combination with a trackpad on the Mac. You could do without a cursor when navigating around the operating system or launching apps. There will, of course, be some times where you do need a cursor — Photoshop and AutoCAD spring to mind — and, whilst you’re in those apps you can bring it back. But, like the keyboard on iOS, why should we display the cursor unless we actually need it.
Instead of managing various windows, our work would take centre-stage in glorious full screen. We can work in a really immersive operating system that has a sleek, simple visual style — just like we’re use to on iOS. Multi-tasking features like Split View and Slide Over could be brought over from iOS, and I think these would work well on a large screen using the trackpad.
Is there a backwards compatibility issue? Well, yes. But, there could be some good solutions here. Perhaps Apple could find a way to easily port any current macOS application that already runs in a full-screen mode. Also, there are tons of apps for iOS and tvOS that already run on Apple’s chips, perhaps these could be made to run with very little additional work. As a stop-gap solution, current iOS apps could use a cursor as a “finger”, until they build a more “focus-friendly” UI.
Will this actually happen? Who knows. But it doesn’t seem out-of-this-world. Apple would have a brand new operating system, more locked-down and more secure than ever before, and allow them to leave behind a lot of the baggage of the past. It would be a much better fit with the design-language of their other platforms, and it could be tuned to run perfectly on their A-series chips. It also means developers can use the more modern frameworks they’re used to from iOS, tvOS and watchOS, so it might encourage more developers to turn to the Mac platform.
I think Apple really do believe there is a future for the Mac. But it seems that macOS, in it’s current form, is slowly coming to the end of it’s useful life. Building a completely new iOS/tvOS-inspired operating system, which fits neatly alongside their other platforms, makes a lot of sense. Yes, it could mean abandoning a lot of things that we consider essential to a “real” operating system, like the mouse cursor and our beloved windows. But maybe, like the floppy drive, firewire ports, and — yes — the headphone jack, it’s time to move on from these too.
It really comes down to two choices. Do Apple put their resources into getting an old operating system to run on their new chips. Or, do they abandon the past and march ever onwards, building a completely new operating system to replace what we have now? I know what sounds more like Apple to me.
Updated: This article was updated to add attribution for the Tim Cook quote, and a link to the video on YouTube