OS X: where to now?

OS X is the most popular Unix-based operating system in the world today, and with good reason. It is a tried and tested code base that is stable, scalable and reliable. However, given Apple’s recent focus on its iPhone, iPad and other touchscreen-based devices, some have speculated that OS X is dead. I disagree.

When Apple launched the iPhone Operating System (recently redubbed iOS) it simply took the core of OS X and added a whole bunch of touch input APIs, whilst stripping out the mouse- and keyboard-related controls (to some extent) and swapped the Dock and Finder for Springboard (that’s the grid of app icons on your iOS device).

With iOS now past its third birthday and nary a mention of the next release of OS X (10.7) since Snow Leopard debuted over a year ago, many speculate that OS X is being put on hold or some have said it is dead in the water. Whilst I certainly don’t believe it’s dead, I do believe that the true integration of the touch-based input is what’s just around the corner in the next revision of OS X.

There can be little argument that touch-based input is the flavour of the month for Apple just now, with 120 million+ iOS devices in the field. The new iPad has shown that apps can be written for a bigger screen in a better way yet still support full touch and approach desktop usability/productivity.

So then what for the desktop? It seems that integrating touch is the next logical step but experiments in the past have proven difficult for users who are constantly lifting and lowering their hand/arm to touch the screen, which is too far away for regular touch input. Also the issue of how the software responds is key — simply taking desktop software and using the touch to simulate a mouse click has proven unsuccessful in years of attempts by Microsoft.

I see the solution in a two-fold paradigm shift: one for hardware and one for software.

First the hardware must be convertible between desktop mode and touch mode. This could include a lighter, thinner detachable screen, or perhaps an iMac that can tilt forward and down to rest at desk level for easy touch input. Other laptop manufacturers have already provided solutions such as twistable screens or reverse folding screens, but why not have a detachable screen with its own battery that communicates over WiFi/Bluetooth back to the powerhouse (the bit with the keyboard, CPU etc). Even better, why not sell a Mac Mini as the powerhouse and use your iPad as a UI for it? Decentralised processing is something Apple already does with xGrid.

Second, the software also needs to be switchable between touch and desktop (anything other than a touchscreen, including a mouse) input modes. In the past we have had Universal Binaries in OS X that support PPC and Intel CPUs. We also currently have Universal Apps that run on both iPad and iPhone/iPod touch iOS variants in the same binary. Why not introduce a third variant of a Universal App — one that uses either touch input (for iPad, iPod touch, iPhone or iMac in “Touch Mode”) or desktop input. In the ultimate seamless blend of the two operating systems Apple could transition between the Applications folder and the Dock into a home-screen style of Springboard icons as the iMac moves into touch input position. Microsoft Word could change from pull-down menus and the iconic “ribbon” toolbar into pop-over buttons and iOS-style navigation.

With a large number of developers working on both OS X and iOS applications it should be possible to merge the two code streams into common, truly universal applications that will work on any Apple device. If Apple goes down such a path OS X would indeed be gone — usurped by its own offspring as it were with all Apple hardware running iOS, and only minor changes based on the device it is installed on.

Whilst this is fun to imagine, putting all speculation aside Apple will need to do something in the next 6-12 months to indicate where it is heading with OS X or Windows 7 (which is winning Microsoft back some its lost mind-share) will begin to erode away what Apple has achieved with Leopard and Snow Leopard in recent years.

Microsoft has already tried to integrate touch into its operating systems with no real success. Can Apple step up and do it right? For Apple’s sake, I hope so.

Discuss this with me in MacTheForum!