What If the New iMac Could Run iOS?

| Analysis

Our Macs are the place where we run iTunes, backup our iDevices, and even manage iOS apps on the iPhone/iPad pages. The apps are in there, we just can't run them.  And now we’re waiting a very long time for a new Ivy Bridge iMac. What if the delay is because Apple is working to allow us to run all our iOS apps on a next generation Mac, say, an iMac?

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The last update to the iMac line was, roughly mid year 2011. Since then, we’ve been expecting an update to the Ivy Bridge processor, but it hasn’t happened. But then, the processor upgrades typically only improve the speed by 10 to 15 percent, so the urgency isn’t extreme. So why not wait a little longer in order to bring customers something extra, “one more thing,” that would knock their socks off.

For example, the ability to run iOS apps on an iMac.

After all, when we sync our iDevice to a host Mac, those apps are just sitting there, begging to run there as well. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of that awesome capability?

They're all there on the Mac.  Let's let 'em run.

The Pluses

The basic idea here is that on the iMac’s display, a window the size of an iPad display could be opened. There, we could run our native iPad apps as well as iPhone apps in 1X or 2X mode. It would open up a world of opportunity for customers: 700,000 new apps. For example, the spouse has the iPad at work, but one would like to run a favorite iPad app on the iMac. Or the children would be able to run dad’s favorite iPhone apps on their 21-inch iMac. Think games. Oh, my.  And the opportunity in business and education would be staggering. The intrinsic appeal of the iMac would be greatly increased.

The iMac is a popular desktop Mac that has the space and the electrical power to support a second CPU/GPU sub-assembly -- and a high enough price, compared to a notebook, to fold in additional hardware and still, maybe, make money. (But see below.)

Of course, and you’re likely ahead of me here, there has to be a way to use touch gestures, in a natural way, to run those apps. And that means a touch sensitive iMac display. What I’m thinking of is an Apple patent that allows one to tilt an iMac back and use a touch capability. This was a hot topic back in 2010, but seems to have fallen off our radars recently.

 

When we look at the displays of the future in science fiction, we almost always see a suggestion that the mouse and keyboard will disappear and we’ll be touching our displays for manipulation and speaking to them for text input.

With improvements to Siri, it won’t be too long before we can reliably, effortlessly dictate and edit text to the point where a keyboard would be considered not just a backup, but an anachronism. An iMac with this capability, a touch screen and Siri would set Apple apart, move them briskly into the future, and put the final nail in the coffin of the classic PC and Windows. The Post-PC era would be, essentially, the Dead-PC era.

A final advantage would be that a larger screen iMac could be a test platform for iPads with larger displays, something that’s probably inevitable.

Terra Nova: Image Credit FOX Broadcasting

This is also the best kind of iOS-ification. Rather than twist and contort OS X into a bastardized iOS, we could continue to take advantage of the power of OS X, Mountain Lion and its successors, but still take advantage of 700,000 iOS apps. Moreover, OS X has benefitted greatly from the ability to run Windows and Linux in Virtualization. Why not extend that benefit to iOS, a very popular OS indeed.

Suddenly, the iMac would be the hottest desktop on the planet and outright embarrass the meager attempts by other PC makers at a touch screen interface with Windows 8.

The Minuses

All is not rosy. There are some serious hurdles to overcome with this concept.

  1. Smudged displays. Heretofore, we’ve always enjoyed a smudge-free iMac display, glorious in its sparkling beauty. A touch screen iMac would suffer the same blight as our iPads: constantly in need of cleaning. Blech. Apple would need to develop a new kind of surface that is somehow better than just oleophobic.
  2. Tired Arm Syndrome. Steve Jobs, in the past, pointed out over and over again that Apple research showed that users don’t like to extend their arms for a prolonged period of time. (But it seems to me, it was always in the context of notebooks.) Put another way, Tim Cook is not fond of toaster-fridges. Or FridgeToasters. That metaphor applies well to notebooks, but on a table, where one can rest the forearms and elbows, it’s a different story, Besides, times and technology change. Tim Cook’s prior comments, like Mr. Jobs’s comments about the 7-inch tablet, may have been intended to buy time until Apple could work out the details on the desktop.
  3. Computational Cost. At first blush, Apple would have to basically include a good part of the iPad motherboard assembly inside an iMac. That would raise the price considerably. However, what if Apple engineers could come up with a full, end-user-class emulation mode (not just what developers have) on the iMac’s ivy Bridge processor? (Virtualization wouldn’t work because iOS runs on ARM architecture) I don’t think it would be beyond the engineering talent of Apple. The question is, is it worth Apple’s time and resources, and would it pay off in the market place?
  4. Display Cost. A touch screen on a 9.7-inch iPad isn’t terribly expensive, about US$100. But an entire 21.5 or 27-inch touch screen display would be much more expensive. Our only hope, Obi Wan, is that the industry has been making these displays in huge quantities, and the extension to larger displays is realistic and cost-effective in 2013. One solution might be to have just a section of the display touch sensitive until costs come down.

Clear as Mud

This idea has been discussed amongst the TMO staff, and there’s no clear consensus right now that the pluses outweigh the minuses. Apple would have to feel that the market opportunity were huge for the iMac and that such a move would breathe new life into the desktop Macintosh line, a product whose sales numbers are small compared to the iPad and iPhone.

Significant technical hurdles would have to be overcome, but then that’s Apple’s forte. Apple may need to wait for the technology, commodity part pricing and its own internal development efforts to converge in 2013.

Finally, like the iPod, iPhone and iPad before, no one ever thought Apple could pull off any of those products until brilliant vision and engineering brought the product to life. Then, the competitors were caught flat-footed and embarrassed technically.

This could be another one of those signature Apple coups.

Comments

mlvezie

I’ve always felt that Macs running iOS apps was always a question of when, not if. With the iOS-ification of OSX in the last couple releases, it’s been clear to me that they’re moving in that direction.

As for how, I would expect some kind of way to use iOS apps with a trackpad rather than touching the screen. That would solve three of your four issues. I believe the Xcode iOS simulator has a little UI element that indicates where your finger would be when you’re running an app. The real app could work the same way, maybe?

webjprgm

This just seems really dumb.  The iMac is a completely different form factor and would require all the iOS apps to be re-written to take advantage of that.  Wait, we already can! It’s called the Mac App Store.

Why apps would have to be rewritten:
- Screen sizes and resolutions would be different.  As with each new iOS device screen resolution, apps would have to be updated with new graphics and UI layouts.
- If they do as you say and come up with a touch pad interface to work with iOS apps on a Mac, there will likely be some tweaking to make things take best advantage of it.  E.g. you could not do multi-touch by touching the actual thing on the screen but could only do multitouch gestures.

Apple is not Microsoft.  They’re not going to pull a Windows 8.

So far Apple has been looking at ways to merge iOS and OS X features.  OS X got the Launchpad to be like iOS’s desktop/app launcher and the magic trackpad to allow gestures.  Apple recognizes that these are separate devices and require separate ways of interacting with them.  They will slowly converge where it makes sense.  I would be extremely surprised if they just threw an iOS emulator in OS X, despite the fact that people want it.

Also, in terms of technical feasibility, Apple already has an iOS emulator for OS X.  It’s part of Xcode and is how developers test their apps without connecting an iOS device.  It’s dreadfully difficult to perform some of the touch gestures using a Mac mouse, and there are extra menu options for things like the shake gesture or rotating the device’s display.  This is not something that would be a good experience for an end user.

webjprgm

Let me clarify one thing.  I’m not saying a touch screen iMac with Dictation/Siri/etc. isn’t coming or won’t work.  I’m just saying that Apple will most likely do a gradual convergence and ask developers to make custom apps for the Mac that work best in that form factor.  I do not expect them to allow running the same app on the iPad as on the iMac-touch.

Lee Dronick

Run them under the Widgets screen and interface with them via a touchpad or mouse, not a touchscreen.

John Martellaro

Lee: I am not a big fan or requiring an additional pointing device, like a Magic Trackpad.  It seems like an inelegant solution going forward and takes the jazz out of manipulating iOS apps directly, as one does with an iDevice.

Lee Dronick

I am not a fan of touching my Macs’ screens. How about giving the users the option of touching the screen or using a mouse/trackpad.

jeremykrall

I think the trackpad is the stepping stone to the touch screen iMac.  At this point Apple can’t do touch (at least not price effectively) on a full size screen.  But they can get everyone used to touch and gestures with a trackpad.  The trackpad can’t be the final solution tough as it still requires a pointer on the screen that you have to move to where you want it then tell it to stop “moving” and do a “moving action”.  That is not very elegant.
The sooner AOS (Apple Operating System) comes out the happier a lot of people will be, myself included.  There have been many times that I have looked at an app in iTunes and couldn’t remember what it did to know if I still wanted it on my iOS devices.  Being able to open it on my iMac would not only solve that, but would be an answer to the question, why haven’t they done it yet?

iJack

Other than saying one would have 700,000 apps available, your “Pluses’ list contains no pluses, while your ‘MInuses” list contains real minuses.  Under ‘Pluses,’ you filled the space speculating on how it might work, but without telling us why it would be desirable.

From what I’ve seen of iOS, anything that can be done there, can be done better on a Mac right now.

I also think it’s time you deep-6 that Terra Nova photo.  I’m not certain that something that looks like a drafting board or a workbench is the best available vision of the future, and we’ve all probably seen enough of it.

Alan Reynolds

Thanks for this intriguing article. I would like to have apps like Zite and more available on an iMac. Reading along in your text I wondered could we not have the benefits you described for less cost and no screen smudges if Apple made it so the iMac ran iOS using as the ‘pointer’ not a mouse or a touch screen but our iPhones or iPads?

Lee Dronick

One of the downsides, other than a grubby screen, is that when you visit a website you will get a popup nag screen asking you to download their app.

Also as Jack asks, “why?”

John Martellaro

iJack:  Oh, but I love that photo!  Perhaps you’re right.  I need to go get one from either the TV series “Defying Gravity” or the movies “Iron Man I/II” or “The Avengers.”  Any other suggestions?

John Martellaro

Mr Reynolds. An additional advantage is that we could read our iBooks titles on the Mac, even if indirectly.

Another person, a Twitter follower, suggested using an iPhone or iPad as the pointing device. The problem there is that the iDevice needs to be physically present. What if another family member took it somewhere? And then you’d have to rig the iDevice to send gesture info back to the iMac, and control different apps there.  That’s a real technical kludge, inelegant I think.

Alan Reynolds

Thanks for replying, John. Yes, there are many advantages. While people could probably live with keeping an iDevice near the iMac, I take your point about the kludge factor in having to rig the iDevice.

AKjohn

I think the iPad functionality can be added by a touch-pad (where a mouse would be) and controlling the interface on the screen, marked by a pointer.

Just a thought, quickly between classes.
John in Alaska

Darren

all this speculation is great, but the current iMacs still don’t have USB 3.0 support.  Thunderbolt, schmunderbolt!

also, my iMac sits more than an arms length away. will your touch screen iMac come with a prosthetic pointy hand on a big stick?

rick

what a load of bullshit!  “the competitors were caught flat-footed and embarrassed technically.”

Do you really think apple invented the touch screen or even the rotation? This was on my HTC P4350 back in 2006! Long before apple even thought about bringing the iphone out!

Dont get me wrong, I own an iphone, ipad and the macbook pro with retina. But all this talk about apple being pioneers is going too far.

They’re a bunch of bullies who think they can take over the world with they small footed updates to their products!

KitsuneStudios

I’m going to have to join the chorus of naysayers here.

The real advantage of the iPad and iPhone is the extreme portability; lightweight, long battery life, wireless networking, usable on any surface, no additional interface devices required. Apps improve upon that by making it simple and intuitive to use with the iOS interface.

That simplicity comes at the cost of depth. Most of the Apps are actually inferior in search, browse, data viewing, or available options that you get by accessing the website through a desktop computer. They work because they offer the vital elements anywhere.

Add to that the fact that the added difficulty of mastering multiple forms of interface (touch-only for iOS, keyboard/mouse for MacOS X) is making things more complex, not less. Finally, when I use a MacOS X computer, I’,m using it for the depth that I can’t get from iOS. I can’t run After Effects or blender on the iPad. I can’t play World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2 or Skyrim on the iPad. I need the robust file management and sharing, the wide range of solutions, the full-sized keyboard, graphic tablet, and multibutton mouse.

Maybe one day, they’ll make a laptop where the ability to use a portable touch interface of iOS makes sense. I can’t see them making a desktop where it would.

wab95

Intriguing thoughts, John.

I know that this has been up for awhile, and people have moved on, but permit one more comment.

I think some of the objections are based on known hardware (and software) design and limitations. This is a bit concrete. I believe, if Apple choose, they could move forward with tighter integration. Whether or not that will be feature integration or emulation, I leave to Apple. An emulator has the advantage of en toto importation of iOS into the OSX platform; whereas integration will continue to be a gradual evolution with an uncertain endpoint.

As for the hardware, I see neither touch screens nor track pads as the way forward, but something new - and something that we have seen before, STNG in fact.

This could take the form of an all-glass device with both vertical and horizontal surfaces. The horizontal surface could be configurable for OSX standard mode for typing, with a central area to use as a trackpad. The horizontal surface could also be configured for iOS mode, in which case both the horizontal and vertical surfaces could be display areas, with the horizontal surface being the touch interface. When one is ready, with the touch of a virtual button, one goes back to OSX mode and interactivity.

If Apple wanted to go even further, it could allow each surface to run a different mode, which implies some level of emulation perhaps, but has the advantage of allowing both iOS and OSX apps to be up and running and accessible in dual or split mode.

Sound far fetched? I think not. I believe Apple have already been showing us, indeed training us, that the future is not about tactile keyboards, but virtual ones on glass. These will be second nature to our kids, who will see the old STNG series computer interface as both prescient and commonplace.

I, for one, look forward to the day when my entire computer is configurable real estate that conforms to my needs. Oh yes, and when voice interaction is more robust still, enabling me to have that true Star Trek moment of simply saying, ‘Computer, on screen’.

Terrin

I am baffled why Apple hasn’t already done this.

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