Why Apple has Put Mac OS X on the Back Burner

| Hidden Dimensions

“Writing the first 90 percent of a computer program takes 90 percent of the time. The remaining ten percent also takes 90 percent of the time and the final touches also take 90 percent of the time.”

— N.J. Rubenking

With all the focus on iOS at WWDC and the rollouts of the iPad and iPhone 4, Apple has conspicuously put Mac OS X development on hold. That has caused some to wonder why Apple, with all its financial resources, couldn’t fund both efforts. Here’s why it could have but chose not to.

Often, tough problems have easy, obvious answers, and they’re the wrong answer. That’s how Apple’s competitors get into trouble. For example, there are those who have said, to paraphrase, “With billions in the bank, why couldn’t Apple just go out and hire more Cocoa programmers, bolster the Mac OS X team, and keep 10.7 on track?”

Sure enough, there are plenty of Mac OS X/Cocoa programmers out there so that Apple could have achieved that. If Apple had done so, here’s what likely would have happened:

  1. The new engineers would have to be brought up to speed on the philosophy of Apple. Inevitably, the message wouldn’t get through to all of them.
  2. Time is critical when in heated competition, and there isn’t time to build a second OS team and remain inside the competition’s decision cycle.
  3. Of all the Cocoa programmers around, when you start expanding the group size, you invariably end up with some who are not so good. Right now, Apple has the cream of the crop. Best to keep it that way.
  4. When implementing changes to the Cocoa APIs, the (augmented) Mac OS X team would find itself in a communication problem with the current iOS team, a team that’s too busy to hand hold any newbies. As a result, initiatives to change and improve Mac OS X would become both fragmented from the iOS line and implemented by people relatively new to Apple. That’s asking for big trouble in River City.
  5. Worse, as the Mac OS X team finds itself increasingly isolated from the fanfare surrounding iOS, they would come to feel that they have a stake in the Mac and Mac OS X. That would result in subtle, insidious moves to preserve the Mac platform at the expense of iOS and even Apple in general. You had to have lived though the Apple II to Mac transition, as Mr. Jobs did, to appreciate this natural human tendency.

Many observers have surmised that Apple has good reason to merge Mac OS X and iOS so that, some day, Macs will morph into a better computer. That’s not so that Apple can seize and hold an iron grip on Mac OS X software development in the style of the App Store. That just isn’t going to happen, and Mr. Jobs has confirmed that.

The Eventual Merge of OSes

What must happen, however, if the Mac is to grow up, leave the PC world behind, and inherit the best of iOS is that there be a uniformity of vision so that the two OSes can merge gracefully, all the while leaving Mac OS X open and iOS, a very mobile OS, subject to the security and privacy provisions of the App Store.

Think of how it will go now. The iPhone 4 has shipped. iOS 4 has shipped. The only remaining significant task for the iOS team, which is basically all the people who were heretofore working on Mac OS X, is to bring iOS 4 to the iPad this fall. After that, there will be one, single, enthusiastic group of OS engineers at Apple who will be eager to return their attention to 10.7 and bring the best of what they’ve learned to the Mac OS.

Apple engineers got very smart about gestures and multi-touch in the last two years. They learned how to better use screen real estate on the iPad. They learned how the tactile feel of an iPad in the hands can create a hugely satisfying experience. But now, all that Apple has learned in iPhone OS 3 and iOS 4 needs to percolate back onto the Mac. If there were an already existing, separate, Mac OS X development team, built up in parallel, with vested interests to get in the way, that could not happen.

The very resources we envision that Apple could have brought to bear with its great wealth would have only served to inhibit further development for the overall good of the company. That’s because a separate iOS team would now have to fight, perhaps in vain, to get the cool things they’ve learned implemented on the Mac. A lesser company would have stumbled on this point.

Software Provincialism Equals Death

One should never underestimate provincialism in software development. I’ve seen this myself in my 30 years of commercial and scientific software development. One is always concerned that some new technology will come along and make our efforts obsolete. Then we’re out of work.

If Apple had hired additional programming talent, spawned off or augmented a separate Mac OS X group to keep work alive while the legacy team had forged onward with iOS 4, think how they would have felt at WWDC. They’d be fretting that the iPhone and the iPad were getting all the attention. Morale would be in the toilet. They’d be haunted by the spectre of Apple someday abandoning the Mac platform, and that all their efforts would go for nought.

Efforts to bring coherence to the two OSes, fold the best of iOS into Mac OS X, would be sabotaged by the Mac team.

Instead, thanks to the vision of Mr. Jobs, Apple maintains one coherent OS team that keeps the OS underpinnings in sync, maintains excitement about the future of the company, and that is ready and eager to bring the best of the iOS learning curve to the Mac platform, unhindered.

The Iterative Process

Not only does Mac OS X 10.7 need to benefit from what has been learned in iOS 4, but iOS 4 needs to grow up as well. All the things we complain about in iOS 4, no printing, no visible file system, the difficulties of moving and sharing files, the affordances we need for content creation, and so on will be part of the growth of iOS. It needs to gain that maturity before it can gracefully merge with Mac OS X.

As the single OS team moves back and forth, iteratively, it will become clearer how to both develop iOS to maturity as well as morph the Mac into a next generation powerhouse. I doubt that even Mr. Serlet and Mr. Forstall fully understand how this will happen. The dynamics of the market place, developer innovation, and customer natural selection may provide the final details of how we’ll keep the best of the Mac’s open architecture and facilities for creation, scientific research, business and servers in place while absorbing the best of iOS. Each year, we see the result of all those forces at WWDC. This evolution and merger won’t be a simple matter. Nothing is a done deal except serendipity.

This coherence of OS vision is just what Mr. Jobs needs to put the final nail in the coffin of Windows. That’s part of his genius. While other companies would have spent a lot of money and built two OS teams to keep both on track, on schedule, Mr. Jobs knows better than that based on experience.

One vision, one team, one goal for all.

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Mostly I agree with your piece. I would, however quibble with the “Apple has conspicuously put Mac OS X development on hold.” I really don’t see that they have.

10.6 came out less than a year ago. 10.6.4 was released just a few weeks ago. Given Apple’s history, 10.7 next spring or summer will be right on schedule. OS-X isn’t XP, it doesn’t need a major update right now.

John Martellaro

geoduck: I’m not basing that wording on timing, but rather on the WWDC session coverage, absence of IT track, and complete lack of references to Mac in the keynote.

Mike Weasner

Merging OS X and iOS is a good idea, if the merge includes the best elements of both.  Gestures on the iPhone, iPad, laptops (all models), and even desktops (with large screens) have their place.  But so does pixel-level control.  iMovie on the iPhone 4 is interesting but doing green-screening chroma control, or even editing photos or movies at a pixel level, with a tap or gesture is likely to be beyond gesture control abilities.  Yes, Aperture has little arrows that you can click on to make minute adjustments to some image parameters, so it is conceivable you could tap on those arrows with a fingertip.  But try using your fingertip to drag some picture element or text to adjust it by 1 or 2 pixels.  That’s difficult with a mouse or pen-based tablet.  It is probably impossible with a finger, even if your finger is not hiding what you are moving, without some onscreen aid (like up/down/left/right arrows).  Personally, I think the keyboard, mouse, pen-based tablets will be around for a long time yet, and hopefully on an Apple Mac system.


Agreed, OS-X was conspicuous by it’s absence, but other than the WWDC emphasis on iOS/iP4 I don’t see the evidence of any slowdown or loss of focus on OS-X. IMO it just wasn’t its turn in the development cycle. Apple has enough product lines now that SJ doesn’t have to fill a keynote by talking about something 6 months out. WWDC was iPhone4 and iOS based because that was the next big thing in the pipeline not because OS-X is somehow getting put on the Back Burner.


I was one of those Mac developers at WWDC and you hit the nail on the head.  I spent the week mostly in the labs talking to engineers.  These were the same people I’ve talked to at previous WWDCs.  In many cases, there is no difference between the code running on your Mac and the code running on your iOS device.  Apple certainly wants to avoid the Windows CE, Windows Embedded, Windows Desktop issues where you have completely different code bases.

Besides, from the people I talked to, work proceeds on Mac OS X and various iOS related things have been added to Mac OS X to speed things up.

To those who worry about Mac OS X, just remember that Apple uses Mac OS X to develop iOS.  You think they want to drop all that?


I could see them merging when at some point your monitor becomes the mobile input device instead of just a display; something you can touch with your finger, draw on with a stylus (pressure sensitivity someday?), and talk into. When you just want to look at something for a while you stick the input device in its charging cradle. The computer becomes just a box that hides under your desk and does all the work while the display and input devices merge. I think this’ll be awhile as I think Apple is still trying to figure what the iPad will be for and how it will be used. They are on the innovative edge here and it’s hard to tell where it will lead.


10.6 came out less than a year ago.

This idea that Apple’s resources shifted is not based on historical evidence.  Apple has maintained skunkworks teams working on future technologies, hardware and software.  When a period of quiet exists, it’s because they have sequestered the teams working on the new projects.

That being said, we can take an educated guess based on where Apple has been heading.  Sure Core Animation and Core Media will need to make their way to OS X just like OpenCL will need to make it’s way to iOS.  And, Apple’s SoC will need to make it’s way to Mac hardware.  An APPLE x86/Vector/GPU/etc by their acquired processor team makes sense.  Something along the lines of AMD’s future Fusion.

Software wise, compiling all system Core Foundation and Cocoa on the new Clang-LLVM 2.0+ (Xcode 4.0) should create significant performance boost.  New hardware technologies mean new core software and newer ways to develop your code.


To all of us that have been using/coding for the Mac a long time this is just like the old argument “Apple must drop their OS and migrate to Windows to survive…” You would think with Apple’s success these types of articles would slow down but no, the pundits must type out some doom and gloom for us Apple users, it’s in their blood. At least we have sites like TMO helping to set the world straight.

PS. I to agree, back burner is a bit harsh, unless it was referring to 10.7 only.


Interesting convergence example: 10.6 introduced an opt-in feature where the OS can quit apps by simply killing their process, rather than going through the normal handshaking.  I was wondering why this is a noteable benefit, when I remembered that the Cocoa APIs are shared by OS X and iOS. “Dont ask, just kill” might not matter much on a big box, but it sure makes task switching and resource recovery quicker in a single app model.

Now, this is a change to OS X that benefits iOS, but don’t assume that changes aren’t going the other way two.  Fundamentally, Apple has one OS and one development framework with two (quite different) interface models.  And considering how much of Apple’s Mac market is laptop, power management isn’t just important for iOS.

Chris Keller

While I too am tired of the media looking for an issue to amplify, this scenario sounds exactly like the premise of the book “Mythical Man Month” by Fred Brooks. Nothing new here that hasn’t been covered in 30 years.

John Martellaro

Trouble is, anything older than 15 years is long forgotten.


Why do we need a new version of Mac OS-X every year? I know my logic is counter to every marketing message out there. Is there something else that needs to be added to Mac OS-X? It’s already way better than any other OS. Constantly changing the OS causes major headaches. I for one am glad Apple is distracted by iOS. Hopefully they’ll leave OS-X alone a little longer.


I think it’s going to be tough for Apple to merge what they’ve learned from iOS for into Mac OS X 10.7 given that iOS 4 hasn’t been out long enough for them to really have learned anything from it yet and 10.7 has been well along for some time.


I believe that the lack of info at WWDC 2010 is a clear indication that 10.7 has gone stealth!  Apple is the best company in the world at keeping secrets and Mac OS X 10.7 is now the biggest in the tech world.  What amazing and innovative new features will it have?  I’m sure Microsoft wants to know, but they (and we) won’t know jack until the Windows 8 feature set is locked in (Beta 1 - Summer 2011).

At this time Apple will surprise launch 10.7 taking Microsoft by surprise.  They won’t be able to respond until the Windows 9 launch in 2015!  That will give Apple another “Redmond, we have a problem!” keynote in 2012.  Or force Microsoft into the same hurry up offense that launched Windows Vista and the XBox 360.

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