Is iOS the Future of the Mac?

When I used an iPad for the first time, I couldn’t help but think that it felt like the future of computing. The iPad not only impressed me with its beautiful interface, but also delighted me with an effortless user experience. No matter how much I used the device, it never became cluttered or disorganized like my Mac. Apps launched quickly and I never had to spend time fiddling with window sizes or knowing what apps were running. Everything simply worked.

Apple has touted OS X as the most advanced operating system, but with iOS revolutionizing many computing paradigms, it is beginning to feel outdated. If Apple is to truly make the Mac the personal computer of the future, we will need to see some bold changes; changes that may eliminate some of the staples of desktop computing that most of us can’t imagine living without.

I think that Apple can, and will, successfully transition us to a future where iOS runs across all of its hardware. Read on for my take on why our computing world is headed this way.

It’s All In The Name

After a decade of OS X versions named after big cats, we finally find ourselves with Lion. Apple definitely made a strategic move in naming OS 10.7 after the proverbial “king of the jungle”. It is pretty difficult to imagine using a lesser cat for a future operating system (Lynx or Ocelot? No way). And it is unlikely that Apple could ever gracefully move on to an operating system called “OS XI”.

Apple also tipped its hand a bit when it changed the name of iPhone OS to iOS. Of course, a name change was necessary once the iPod Touch and iPad joined the ranks. But if it were meant to remain solely a touch operating system, it could have been named something like Touch OS. With a name like iOS, Apple made a statement: this is the OS, the future of all of their products.

When Apple renamed iPhone OS to iOS, it may have signified bigger plans for the future.

When Apple renamed iPhone OS to iOS, it may have signified bigger plans for the future.

Lion Was a Transition

Lion’s tagline is “OS X meets the magic of iOS”. I would say that so far, it has been a fairly awkward meeting. It was clear when Lion was unveiled that it was really just OS X with some iOS features tacked on. I don’t know anyone who uses Launchpad on a regular basis, and fullscreen mode just feels like a hack on top of the operating system.

Sure, Lion tried to give us a taste of the magic that makes iOS so enticing, but in the end, it did not make any bold enough changes to truly revolutionize the Mac experience.

How Will iOS Revolutionize the Mac?

iOS is about changing paradigms. In particular, it is about simplifying the computing experience by taking away choices that the user has to constantly make in order for things to run smoothly. Here are some aspects of computing that iOS on the Mac could change forever.

No Visible File System

For most of us, the visible file system has been a staple of the computing experience since we first used a personal computer. With a visible file system, the user can explore all of the files and folders contained on a hard drive, move them around, and delete them.

On Macs, the beloved Finder has served us well since it was introduced on the very first Macintosh computer. Finder has been such an icon of Mac computers that when Steve showed off the iPhone, some may have expected to see a little Finder in iPhone icon form. But with the first iPhone OS, Apple eliminated the user’s ability to directly see the file system of the device.

So how exactly does iOS avoid having a file system? Basically, everything on iOS is app-oriented. This means you can never find a file and open it as you might on OS X. Instead, in iOS you must open an app first, which will then present you with the files it handles, whether they be Pages documents, music files, or photos.

iOS apps must showcase files to you at startup, since the OS has no visible file system.

iOS apps must showcase files to you at startup, since the OS has no visible file system.

Why get rid of the visible file system? Quite frankly, because users make a mess of it. If someone asked me what my least favorite part of the computing experience is, I would say cleaning up my desktop and Downloads folder. I let them get overrun for weeks, until finally I can’t handle it anymore and go on a deleting rampage. Instead of a desktop covered with folders and files, we might see the iOS home screen with a grid of apps, emphasizing apps as the main focus of the user experience.

What your desktop could look like with iOS.

What your desktop could look like with iOS.

No Need to Manage Windows

Since the graphical user interface first appeared on computers, we have really only known them to have overlapping, resizable windows. And we often find ourselves fiddling with these windows. We adjust them to our desired size for the content, try to fit two or three windows side by side, and have to deal with a ton of windows after a busy day of work. I would like to think that 10 years from now, we will not spend nearly as much time or energy getting our windows the way we like them.

After a busy day, I often have a ton of windows to deal with.

After a busy day, I often have a ton of windows to deal with.

With iOS, the user is never given the option of resizing, minimizing, or closing windows. Instead of having to deal with windows, every app takes up the entire screen, and you cannot create multiple windows of an application.

We know that fullscreen apps work well on the smaller screens of iPhones and iPads. However, Lion already has fullscreen functionality, and I don’t find myself, or many people I know, using it often. In order to make the best use of real estate on the larger screens of Macs, Apple needs to provide an intelligent way to let multiple windows share the screen space at once.

As for the best way to do this, we may have seen a hint of what the future holds from one of Apple’s competitors: Microsoft. With Windows 8, Microsoft has similarly rethought window management. Rather than letting the user resize and overlap many windows, it instead lets you snap windows side by side, filling up the entire screen.

In Windows 8, no more pileup of your open windows.

In Windows 8, no more pileup of your open windows.

This works particularly well if you are multitasking with two apps at once; say for example, working on a document in Pages and looking at a to do list, or browsing the web and chatting with a friend on the side.

On larger screens, iOS could adopt a split-screen approach to window management.

On larger screens, iOS could adopt a split-screen approach to window management.

Automatic Process Management

A common problem that new Mac users face is expecting OS X to function as Windows does, where closing all of the windows of an app will quit it. My parents, for example, make their Macs slow down to a crawl because they don’t know how to properly quit apps. But users can’t entirely be blamed; Apple doesn’t exactly make it easy, since you either need to go through the menu bar, right-click the Dock icon, or use a keyboard shortcut to quit an app.

With iOS, this problem was remedied with automatic process management. In this system, the user never has to quit an app or decide which apps need to be running. The operating system takes care of this busy work, suspending apps when necessary to free up memory, and automatically resuming them when the user needs them. iOS’s multitasking system handles everything for the user, and generally keeps the device from running sluggishly.

These blue indicator lights don't exist on iOS, because the user doesn't need to worry about what apps are running.

These blue indicator lights don't exist on iOS, because the user doesn't need to worry about what apps are running.

If iOS is one day powering our Macs, there will be no more running lights under apps in the dock, and no more quitting applications. The user will simply switch between apps as needed, and the operating system will do the dirty work for them.

The End of the Menu Bar As We Know It

Let’s face it, the menu bar probably doesn’t get used extensively. It is mostly there for overflow; to hold all of the features that developers couldn’t easily fit into the app’s interface. Menu items like “File” and “Edit” are vague terms that hold features that are either unused, or that users have learned to perform with keyboard shortcuts, like saving, copying and pasting, undoing and redoing, etc.

Some aspects of OS X, like the visible file system, overlapping windows, and menu bar have been around since the Lisa in 1983—nearly 30 years!

Some aspects of OS X, like the visible file system, overlapping windows, and menu bar have been around since the Lisa in 1983—nearly 30 years!

Macs need to lose the menus that have been around since the days of the Apple Lisa, and embrace the sleek, black title bar of iOS. Granted, there are some features from the menus that will need to find a new home. For example, “Bookmarks” in browsers, like Safari, and “Filters” in Photoshop are frequently accessed, and will likely need to be relocated to the app’s interface. We can see this already in the iPad version of Safari, which has a button you can press to see a drop down of your bookmarks.

Developers will have to find places for functions that were previously stored in the menubar.

Developers will have to find places for functions that were previously stored in the menubar.

A Unified App Ecosystem

If iOS comes to the Mac, will it run existing Mac apps, iOS apps, or both? The reason Macs can’t easily run iOS apps—and developers have to therefore rewrite a lot of code to port their iOS apps to the Mac—is because OS X does not support a framework provided to iOS developers called UIKit. In order for developers to easily port their iOS apps to the Mac, Apple would need to bring support for the UIKit framework to the Mac.

If iOS apps could run on the Mac, there would no longer be two separate App Stores—the iOS App Store and Mac App Store—there would simply be the App Store, a grand unified ecosystem of apps for any of your Apple devices. Currently, you can buy Universal apps for iOS, which run on both iPhones and iPads. In the future, you could buy a Universal app that supports the iPhone, iPad, and Mac all at once.

Someday we might see Universal apps that work across all Apple devices.

Someday we might see Universal apps that work across all Apple devices.

Once iOS apps can easily run on the Mac, it is hard to say how existing Mac apps will be supported. Users have spent a lot of money and become dependent on the vast body of software that has been created for the Mac the last 11 years, since the introduction of OS X. Some people could not live without 3rd party software such as Adobe’s creative apps, Microsoft’s Office Suite, and other big name and independently developed apps.

However, getting Mac apps to live side by side with iOS apps considering the aforementioned paradigm changes—no visible file system, no menu bar, drastically different window management, etc.—would be no easy task. Apple would need to announce the changes far in advance and give developers a transition period to get their Mac apps ready for the new frontier.

This unification of apps across devices would also be the perfect time for Apple to finally make a move that some long time users have been dreading: requiring developers to distribute all software through the App Store. Apple controls all app distribution on iOS devices, and likely plans on making the switch to this model on Macs one day. As more and more developers bring their apps to the Mac App Store, it becomes easier for Apple to one day pull the plug on downloading and installing apps from the web.

Still, some apps that have long existed for the Mac wouldn’t even be allowed in under current rules. People have tolerated the lack of torrent apps on current iOS devices, but would they be willing to give up torrent software on their Macs, or would Apple have to make some exceptions to the rules to prevent too much rebellion from users? There might be a day when people need to jailbreak their Macs in order to gain some of the freedoms that would be lost in this transition.

Let’s Talk About Hardware

So far, I have been painting a picture of iOS running on existing Mac hardware. After all, millions of people currently own iMacs and MacBooks, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to alienate these users by forcing them to upgrade hardware if they want the latest software.

However, iOS has only appeared on touch devices so far, and it is possible that the Mac hardware may evolve to enable more touch interaction. Steve Jobs famously said of touchscreen Macs, “We’ve done tons of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical.”

I believe the key to that statement is “vertical”. If touch screens don’t work on vertical surfaces, it is possible that Apple is going to come out with laptops and desktops where the screen can be repositioned at more convenient angles. Indeed, the patent for such a design has already been filed for what is essentially a tiltable touchscreen iMac.

Apple filed a patent for a tilting, touchscreen iMac in 2010.

Apple filed a patent for a tilting, touchscreen iMac in 2010.

This layout would easily allow the user to switch between touch and cursor-based interaction. Allowing both modes of input would be useful, because while touching a screen can feel more natural, it is not well suited for selecting specific parts of text or doing professional work that involves precision.

Interestingly, the company Lenovo recently released its IdeaCentre A720, which as many have pointed out, closely resembles Apple’s diagrams.

Future iMacs might look similar to Lenovo's Ideacentre A720

Future iMacs might look similar to Lenovo's Ideacentre A720.

Lenovo also recently showed off its new IdeaPad Yoga, which combines the traditional laptop with a tablet through a flipping keyboard. While this is an intriguing design, flipping the entire keyboard back and forth might feel cumbersome, and leave the keyboard exposed to damage when in the tablet mode. Perhaps a better method would be having the keyboard slide out, as some mobile phones have long done.

The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga is an innovative take on the combined laptop/tablet.

The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga design is interesting, but probably not ideal.

Time will tell if these alternate form factors appeal to users at all, but one thing is sure: Apple has undoubtably been testing many different prototypes over the years, and won’t release a product unless they are convinced it is the future.

Conclusion

Apple got the chance to design an operating system UI from scratch with its touch devices, and they made many bold design choices that paid off. While users might fear drastic paradigm shifts coming to the Mac, a computer that has been so reliable so many years, I believe it is necessary in order for Apple’s technology to remain modern. If the speculations in this article are true, it will certainly be exciting to witness the transition to a radically different Mac experience.

Many thanks to Tyler Murphy, who provided vision and mockups for this piece.