Is it iOS Yet?

The new iPod nano features a multi-touch display — similar to what you’ll find on an iPhone. The new Apple TV runs via the same A4 chip found in the iPhone. What is one to make of these similarities? Are these two new devices actually running a form of iOS? What are the essential characteristics that define an iOS device in the first place? And why does it matter? Let’s find out…

What is an iOS device?

There are at least two major criteria for defining what iOS is and determining whether or not a given device is running iOS:

• Function: User interface. In this context, we define a device functionally. If it looks and feels and acts the way iOS devices typically do, then it’s an iOS device. Specifically…does the device have an iOS-like Home screen? Does it have a multi-touch display? Does it run apps? Most notably, does it run the same apps that already run on the iPhone? Does it sync in iTunes the same way as an iPhone or iPad?

• Structure: Underlying software. In this context, we define a device structurally. Does a device run essentially the same software as the iPhone, regardless of differences in the interface? If so, it’s an iOS device. A problem here is that, to most users, the underlying structure remains largely unknown. Unless you hack an Apple TV or jailbreak an iPhone/touch/iPad, you can’t even see the software contained within.

To my mind, structure is the more critical of the two criteria. By analogy, it’s like determining the evolutionary similarity of species of animals. Two species may be functionally similar yet be far apart in their evolutionary history. For example, both bats and bumblebees have wings for flying, yet the origins of their wings are vastly different and the underlying structures have very little in common (other than an ability to support flight). In such cases, it is structure that ultimately determines evolutionary similarity, not function. That’s why bats are viewed as having more in common with squirrels than with bumblebees.

In the same way, if we look at the underlying structure of different Apple hardware, we find that almost all Apple devices (Macs, iPhones, iPod touches, iPads, and Apple TVs) run a variation of Mac OS X. They all have similar system software, based on the same System/Library structure. They all use frameworks and .plist files and packages. They all have an underlying UNIX base, allowing any Terminal program to access their contents.

There are important differences, of course. The iOS flavor of OS X supports a touchscreen interface, runs App Store apps and does not include a Finder. Apple TV has been more like a Mac mini that is forced to always be in Front Row mode. But, underneath it all, they are all still running the same basic OS.

The one major exception to this has been the traditional iPods: the classic, nano, and shuffle. They have no underlying Mac OS X structure. 

So how do the new nano and new Apple TV line up on these criteria?

Is the new iPod nano running iOS?


From a functional perspective, there is an obvious similarity between the interfaces of the new nano and the iPhone: they both work via a touchscreen. However. the new nano, unlike iOS devices, continues to support the “Enable Disk Use” mode, allowing you to mount the iPod as an external flash drive on your Mac. Similarly, when syncing in iTunes, the nano does not behave like an iOS device; for example, no backup file is maintained and you can’t sync any apps to it.

Further, from the more critical structural perspective, they have almost nothing in common. There remains no underlying set of OS X System/Library and UNIX files on the new nano.

All of this is consistent with what Apple representatives have already acknowledged: “The new iPod nano does not run iOS — it only looks like iOS.” As such, the new nano does not even appear to be a transitional step towards an iOS device down the road. The nano appears likely to remain outside the iOS domain indefinitely.

Is the Apple TV running iOS?

For the old, now discontinued, Apple TV, the answer is no.

Apple TVs do share an underlying OS X structure with iOS devices. But the Apple TVs are more closely aligned to iMacs and MacBooks than to iPhones and iPads.

Back in the early days of Apple TV, hackers showed how you could “turn your Apple TV into a full blown Mac OS X machine” without much effort. Via the USB port included on the old Apple TV (and excluded from the new model), hackers could access the device’s contents and modify it. [Correction: The new Apple TV includes a “Micro-USB (for service and support).”]

As noted by AppleTVHacks, this is will be more difficult to do with the new Apple TV…”since it has no USB host (no patchstick, no external hard drive) and hard drive (no room for additional files)…The hacking will probably have to be done via hooking the Apple TV up like a hard drive, and I doubt it will be as easy as the original one…If the device is truly based on some form of the iOS, we will rather have to talk about ‘jailbreaking,’ not ‘hacking.’”

So…is the new Apple TV running a form of iOS? The answer here is maybe.

Until we can get our hands on the new device, we won’t know for sure. For now, while it is safe to assume that the new Apple TV will be running some form of OS X, the question remains: What form?

Will it be like the old Apple TV, running a version of OS X similar to what we find on Macs? The user interface, which remains about the same on both the old and new Apple TVs suggests this may be the case.

However, the fact that the new Apple TV hardware has switched to the A4 chip suggests it might actually be running something more closely aligned to iOS. Further, the iPhone Remote app already allows you to interact with an Apple TV as if it were an iOS device. And with AirPlay, you will be able to stream video content from your iPhone or iPad directly to an Apple TV. 

Still, the new Apple TV does not directly support a touchscreen interface. And it does not have an iOS-like Home screen or allow user-installed apps. And given that it offers no hard drive storage, there appears to be no syncing or backing up via iTunes, as with an iPhone.

However, again as in evolutionary biology, this may be a case where a difference in function masks an underlying similarity in structure (such as the structural similarity of fins on whales to legs on land mammals, which have similar origins despite their different functions).

Sticking with predictions I previously made (and consistent with a BusinessWeek article), I am speculating that the new Apple TV may already contain the code for a more iOS-like interface, ready to be unleashed via a firmware update. Apple may be waiting for the right convergence of factors before doing so. Such factors likely include expanded cloud-based support from its so-far-secretive server farm in North Carolina and more flexible agreements from Hollywood studios as to what Apple TV can offer.

[Update 9/16/10: An Ars Technicnia article reports that Apple TV “is indeed an iOS device” — based on evidence in the iOS 4.2 beta code.]

Apple TV: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

For now, I remain content with my old Apple TV and have no intention of switching to the new model — even at $99. Apple claims that, while software for the old Apple TV will no longer be updated, the device will continue to work as usual. This means I will still be able to purchase movies and store content directly on the Apple TV’s drive (a feature that remains significant). That’s good enough for me.

Still, along the lines I just discussed, I can imagine a future iOS-like upgrade to the new Apple TV that would convert it into a killer must-have device.

Imagine an Apple TV where you could rent or purchase any television show currently broadcast, as well as most shows from seasons past. Imagine similarly being able to rent or purchase almost any movie now available. Imagine that purchases would be stored in an assigned personal space in Apple’s cloud server. From this space, you could stream the content to your Apple TV whenever you wanted. Access to the content would be almost immediate after a purchase, because you wouldn’t need to download anything to your local drive. However, you would have the option to download purchased content to your Mac, if you wished. Imagine that this device also ran a collection of third-party apps, similar to an iPad.

Finally, imagine when you add up your monthly cost for this a la carte system, it totals to far less than what you now pay for Comcast (or whatever other similar service you have). At this point, I would not only get an Apple TV but I would dump Comcast the next day. Of course, this is also why the arrival of such a day may be indefinitely “over the rainbow.” Corporations such as Comcast, and to some extent the Hollywood Studios themselves, will likely fight against this happening — wrongly worrying either about ceding too much control to Apple or losing their business altogether.

Still, if anyone can fend off these entrenched interests, it’s Apple. I’m not ready to bet money on Apple’s ultimate success with Apple TV, but I will be following developments over the next year or so with eager anticipation.