The Splintering of OS X

I want to tell you a story. It’s a story about a possible future for Macs and OS X. It’s a future that, if the story turns out to be true, would take shape in 2013 — heralding a major, unexpected and completely new direction for Apple.

Let me be clear. This story is not based on inside knowledge of Apple’s plans. It is not even a prediction of what I’m convinced will happen. Rather, it is speculation about what might happen. However, I believe there are enough signs out there, all pointing in the same direction, to merit taking the story seriously.

But before I tell you the story, I need to tell you another one…

Mac Pro + Mountain Lion = ?

Mac hardware today

For people waiting for a new Mac Pro, last week’s speed-bump upgrade, the first revision to the Pro model in almost two years, was almost certainly a disappointment. There was no external change to the box, not even to add a Thunderbolt or USB 3 port.

The Mac Pro is not the only Mac currently experiencing upgrade fatigue. Apple has not updated the iMac for over a year — not even for a minor speed bump. And no update is in sight. We did see the arrival of the “all new” 15” MacBook Pro with Retina Display. While the rest of the portable lineup, the MacBook Airs and non-Retina MacBook Pros, got a few internal hardware improvements and the addition of a USB 3 port, they are fundamentally similar to the machines released last year.

This slow rate of upgrading is unprecedented for Apple. What’s going on? What’s especially going on with Apple’s desktop models? Something unusual must be going on. Apple’s official response is “wait until next year.” Replying to a user’s questions about the future of Apple’s desktop Macs, Tim Cook said: “Don’t worry as we’re working on something really great for later next year.” An Apple executive made a similar statement to David Pogue: “New models and new designs are under way, probably for release in 2013.” [But see my comment below regarding a revision to this statement.]

Huh? Apple is a company that doesn’t foreshadow its future products 12 hours ahead of an official announcement, never mind 12 months. Why would Apple go out of its way to broadcast its plans for late 2013, even in this vague manner? The most likely explanation is that, recognizing that the atypically long delays will raise user concerns, it wanted to assure customers that Apple was not abandoning its desktop products. Given that Apple offered no specifics about what exactly was coming next year, there seemed little harm in this one time partial exception to Apple’s lips-sealed mentality.

This leaves one remaining set of questions: Why is Apple taking so long to come out with these upgrades? Does it really need three years to add a Thunderbolt port to the Mac Pro? What revisions are coming to the iMac that could not be completed in time for release this year? It’s not as if Apple was caught off-guard that these models were due for a refresh. Again, what’s going on?

It could be that Apple is facing some unexpected obstacles in the redesign of the hardware. Maybe it needs to wait for certain components to become more widely available. Maybe. But perhaps the reason for the delay has nothing to do with hardware. Perhaps Apple is instead delaying the hardware while it waits for a software upgrade coming in 2013. Perhaps the hardware revisions require the software upgrade. The software in question would, of course, be the next iteration of the Mac operating system: OS X 10.9.

This software possibility finally brings us back to the story I promised at the top of this article…

OS X Splintered

What might be included in OS X 10.9 that would account for these hardware delays and vague statements from Apple? The seeds of the answer may lie in OS X Mountain Lion, due out next month.

As I noted in a prior column, every highlighted new feature in Mountain Lion is a feature already in iOS 5 or coming in iOS 6. There seems no doubt that this is all part of Apple’s long-term Mac strategy to make OS X the functional equivalent of iOS. Despite some potential downsides, this strategy is working well for Apple. The transition started in Lion, moved into high gear in Mountain Lion, and will likely be completed in OS 10.9.

So far, we’re on solid ground. Here’s where things get more iffy. What might a “completed” transition look like? How far can Apple push iOS-ification beyond what’s already apparent in Mountain Lion? To me, the only major transition step that remains is for Apple to go “all in” — to take the last big leap — and put in place the same restrictions on the Mac that already exist on iOS devices.

This means limiting software on Macs only to apps that come from the Mac App Store (possibly also allowing Gatekeeper-approved software from elsewhere, but I doubt it). It would also mean cutting off end-user access to the Mac’s operating system (a trend begun with Apple making the user’s Library folder invisible in Lion, but which would vastly expand in 10.9). It would mean the ejection of any third-party software that “tweaks” the operating system. Apple would also remove its own system-level utilities, such as Terminal (Apple doesn’t permit anything like Terminal on iOS devices). It is even possible that the Finder would be eliminated (as I previously considered). Finally, it would mean that the software used to develop software (e.g., Xcode) would no longer run (just like you can’t now develop software for iPads on iPads).

“Wait a second,” I hear you shouting, “If Apple does all of this, how do developers create new software for Macs and iOS devices?”

I’m glad you asked. Here is where we finally get to the bottom of the mystery and tie everything together. Apple could solve this dilemma by splitting OS X in two: a consumer version (that includes all the restrictions I’ve just described) and a professional version (without restrictions, that retains most of what we still see in Mountain Lion, perhaps even dropping some iOS-related features).

Mountain Lion/Kitten

The pro version would be marketed to developers, IT professionals, graphic/video artists, and anyone else in need of high-end hardware. The consumer version would be for “the rest of us.” [I’m still working on exactly where the Mac mini and OS X Server fit in here; let’s ignore them for now.]

And here’s where the hardware angle comes in. The consumer version of OS X would be preinstalled on all of Apple’s “consumer” machines: MacBook Airs and iMacs. The pro version would be pre-installed on Mac Pros (or whatever new thing replaces them) and MacBook Pros. Most likely, the “pro” machines would be able to switch between the two versions of OS X, allowing developers to create and test apps on the same machine. Consumer hardware, however, will not be able to install the pro version of OS X.

To accommodate this software split, Apple would want (need?) to make significant revisions to its hardware. The release of these new models, of necessity, would have to wait until the arrival of OS X 10.9 “later next year.” Until then, Apple has decided to pretty much tread water. This is why we have to wait until 2013 for major upgrades to the Mac Pro and the iMac.

Will there be protests about doing this? Of course. Will there be problems with the implementation? Probably, but not unmanageable ones. This would certainly be a radical change for Apple; they have never previously split the OS in such a way (Steve Jobs consistently chided Microsoft for its multiple versions of Windows). And iOS-like restrictions have never been enforced on a Mac. Many people will cite objections to these changes just as they have objected to the iOS-related changes Apple has already implemented in Lion and Mountain Lion. However, with the hordes of users comfortable with how things work on their iPhones and iPads, and with another year to accept the changes in Mountain Lion, Apple may rightly assume that the majority of its customers will be ready for this transition.

And that will be that. Game over. Will this speculation turn out to be reality? By next year at this time, we should know. Mark your calendars now.

Image made by Bryan Chaffin from an idea by John Martellaro with help from Shutterstock.