Editorial

Editorial: Will iOS replace Mac OS X?

If Apple's Wednesday announcement told us anything, it's that Apple sees the iPhone OS as the way forward. Pushing it more and more in their products, it seems inevitable that it will eventually make its way into the Mac range, forcing the current Mac OS X into obscurity. There's already rumours of a 22" touchscreen iMac on the horizon, and reports suggest that Apple is planning on renaming the iPhone OS to the simpler iOS. And as much as Mac fans would love to think otherwise, OS X is confusing and complicated for new computer users. Mac OS X needs to change.

So, how would this iOS work on the desktop? Apple can't keep redesigning it every time it introduces a new screen size. That wouldn't take into account times where the screen size is unexpected. What if a customer uses their own display? Or if they use more than one screen? App developers would have a headache having to include versions of their app for every conceivable screen size. No, if anything, the iPad was a wake-up call to developers to stop assuming the size of the screen when developing. From here on out, developers will be more cautious and ensure their apps will scale to larger screens.

The only problem with the approach of filling the screen with the app is it makes multitasking much more difficult. The multitasking limitation made a certain level of sense on the iPhone, but it doesn't make as much sense on the iPad or Mac. A lack of multitasking on a touchscreen Mac would be suicide. While we managed without several years ago, these days we're so used to multitasking that not having it on a full-size computer would be insane. App management needs an elegant, simple solution. It needs to be something users of the iPhone and Mac can easily understand. It's for this reason that I think the OS X dock will stay pretty much the same. The divide will disappear, and minimised applications could instead shrink down into their dock icons, something that already exists as an option in Snow Leopard. Double tapping an app's dock icon could maximise it, and holding down on an app could provide a popover of options similar to the popovers seen in the iPad demo. Closing an app could be done with a simple gesture such as dragging the dock icon off and letting go, similar to removing dock icons in Mac OS X. Multi-touch provides the opportunity to perform many basic actions without sacrificing screen real estate for buttons.

We now need a system of app launching. I'd rather not speculate on hardware but I think the Home button will be present in some form. Apple likes consistency, and a ubiquitous Home button in their product line would be quickly understood as "This is what I push to view and open apps, as well as to search." The Home screen would be the first thing the user sees when the computer is switched on, waiting for them to select an app to get going. Uninstalling would be just like on the iPhone: hold down and then touch the cross.

Apple's current direction indicates that they see the App Store as the future, but app distribution could potentially go two ways. Either way Apple would include an App Store, as the App Store has been an overwhelming success. Updating software would also be much easier through an App Store, instead of the mess of different updaters for different applications on the current Mac OS X. But the question remains as to whether or not Apple would allow apps not sold via the app store to be run. While the idea of having a completely secure OS is probably appealing, current Mac developers already have distribution channels that they're used to. It also begs the question of what the user's meant to do if they don't have an internet connection. One thing's for certain, though: the iOS will have to have a version of Xcode if it wants to replace Mac OS X.

User-controlled file management is slowly disappearing. Apps will instead be in control of their own files. Evidence of this can be seen today in iTunes, iPhoto and iMovie, all of which include their own file management system. It all sounds a lot more restrictive than it actually is, because when you consider the fact that iPhone apps can share data between each other, and apps in OS X can see the contents of iLife libraries, what you're instead left with is a system that makes it much clearer what app can use what. Instead of having to guess what can open what and when, the app will decide for you. Users shouldn't have to worry about permissions and compatibility. Finding a file would be as simple as using the Spotlight search, and a tagging system would be a far more versatile solution to folders. If I have a folder of cat photos and a folder of photos taken in my new house, what happens when I take a photo of my cat in my new house? Tagging means files can be sorted and filtered in many ways, not just how you decided to structure your folders.

But if there's such a wide difference in hardware, architectures and design, why would Apple bother? Shoehorning a touch interface into Mac OS X would be a strange move, seeing as Apple believes touchscreens should have interfaces designed for touch, and Mac OS X simply isn't designed for touch. Then why not just start over? Because, if done right, Apple would already have a large library of apps for its new range of computers. This isn't like Mac OS 9 where developers had to rewrite large portions of apps or have users run them in a virtual machine. iPhone/iPad apps could be run under a Rosetta-like system while developers slowly move their apps over to a universal binary ARM/Intel system. Mac OS X apps could be run under a system where interface elements are rescaled to make them touch-friendly, while developers move their apps over to Cocoa Touch. This also isn't like Mac OS 9 where developers are cautiously moving their hard work over to a new platform, as millions of iPhone users are out there already. There isn't any speculation involved; it's a real market already out there. There's an even bigger advantage to this plan: gaming. Apple has half-heartedly tried to get developers interested in the Mac platform before, but with the iOS developers will already be right there.

The question of the iOS appears more to be "when" rather than "if". Apple clearly loves multi-touch, and there’s a whole group of customers out there who haven’t used a Mac but know their way around an iPhone. Simplicity is key with Apple, and the current iPhone OS has proven itself to be something a technophobe can pick up and master in no time at all. All that remains to be seen is how Apple would implement it in a way that wouldn’t alienate current OS X developers and users, but also in a way that iPhone users can understand quickly and easily.

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