Jean-Louis Gassée has an excellent piece on the future of desktop and mobile operating systems. It includes some lore—including that time Apple tried to buy a a code dump of BeOS from Palm—and some interesting speculation on the future. Both are well worth your time, and it got me thinking about an old interview of Steve Jobs from the mid-1990s.
Here are some highlights from Jean-Louis Gassée’s piece:
An ex-Apple acquaintance recently told me there are something like 10,000 “open” bugs on an on-going basis. The number that are urgent is, of course, a fraction of the gamut, but like any mature operating system, macOS has become a battlefield of patch upon patch upon patch.
At the time that Apple’s smartphone project began, an Apple employee and former Be engineer offered Palm Inc. $800K for a BeOS “code dump” — just the code, no support, no royalties. The engineer was highly respected for his skill in mating software to unfamiliar hardware; BeOS was a small, light operating system; draw your own conclusion
A couple of friends of mine, unknown to each other, posited a scenario in which we carry our smartphone around with us and then, when we reach our office or home desk, plunk it down next to a large screen and keyboard+trackpad combo. The mobile device connects wirelessly and, presto, the comforts of desktop computing. Surely, they both said, this is just a matter of software and time.
Go read it. It’s good.
Steve’s Vision of Taking His Desktop with Him
I’ll one-up Mr. Gassée here with something that has stuck with me for almost 20 years. It was an interview with Steve Jobs during his transition from NeXT back to Apple. The thing that struck me was him talking about the magic of logging into his NeXT desktop from any NeXT station. I mean the GUI, too, not just a command line.
I’ve tried and tried to find that piece since, but can’t. It was with a mainstream publication that either went under or underwent so many overhauls the archives got hosed. If you recall it, drop a note in the comments.
It always seemed like a magical idea. Sure, this is essentially Unix at its heart, but true my-desktop-goes-with-me-anywhere-on-any-device is still little more than science fiction. With security being what it is, I am much more taken with the idea of hauling my desktop and its data with me—in my pocket—and accessing it like it was a proper Mac wherever I am.
Think displays you can project or roll up and an interface that changes according to the task you are doing. Reading email? What we think of iOS is great. Doing research and writing? Give me a keyboard, mouse, display, and macOS, thank you. Being able to do either with the same device as your engine would be magical.
It’s sort of the antithesis of Microsoft’s approach of making one operating system serve two masters—mobile and desktop. This is what Tim Cook called the ToasterFridge. Keeping the operating systems separate—like Apple has done—makes more sense to me. Being able to eventually serve them up from the same device seems even better.
This concept must surely still be alive at Apple. Clearly Apple didn’t pursue the so-called “thin client” model of the early 2000s that would have seen desktops being dished out by a server. But that vision Steve Jobs had of taking your desktop with you everywhere is surely cooking in the labs at Apple.
If so, when technology advances far enough to makes such dreams reality, we might see the reverse ToasterFridge: an Apple device that serves the proper operating system suited to our tasks, with all our data in one-central place—on that device.
Such a vision plays directly into Tim Cook’s approach to data security, and it dovetails with such far-fetched rumors as Apple working to port macOS to ARM processors. It’s also precisely the sort of leapfrogging Apple does so well.
One way or another, I hope this vision is alive at Apple. It’s definitely a future I’d embrace.