Will Apple Merge iOS and Mac OS X?

“Technology makes it possible for people to gain control over everything, except over technology.”

—John Tudor

Apple currently has two very popular OSes. iOS is brand new and Mac OS X, while still fairly modern, is ten years old and has its roots in something Apple would like to leave behind: the PC world and the mouse. Will Apple try to merge these two OSes?

The first thing to think about is that this decision, if that’s what it will be, is as much customer and finance driven as it is technical. That is, does it make sense to even think about doing it? How does Apple benefit? Sure, it’s probably Mr. Jobs’s vision to leave the PC world behind, but are there tangible benefits? For example, selling a bunch more iOS apps to Mac customers. Or increasing the Mac’s market share.

That naturally brings up the relative numbers of iOS devices out there compared to the number of Macs. We know there are 120+ million iOS products in the field in 2010. If that rising number were to eventually swamp the number of Macs, then there could come a time when Macs are in such a minority that it makes sense to think about a merger. However, right now, Mac sales are on the increase, iPads aren’t cannibalizing sales, and Dan Frommer has reported that “Mac computers and iPads… can grow in tandem, at least for the foreseeable future.” That doesn’t include iPod touches and iPhones, but even so, one can argue that with an estimated 60 million active Macs on the planet and 50 percent of all new cutomers coming from Windows, a merger doesn’t make sense any time soon.

On the technical side, iOS is a descendant of Mac OS X and has been stripped of many processes and functions that make Mac OS X a full-fledged UNIX OS. Even so, they are kissing cousins, and it wouldn’t be hard to add features from iOS to Mac OS X — or restore certain key functionalities that are in Mac OS X to iOS. Considering the magic Apple has pulled off in the past, for example, the Blue Box (“Classic” inside Mac OS X), I don’t believe that it would be challenge to merge the two at some point.

Recall, in the past, Apple has criticized Microsoft for having too many versions of Windows. Combine that with Mr. Jobs’s historical tendency to avoid bloat with unneeded, duplicated resources and you have a preconditioned mentality at least thinking about the prospect.

Merge or Subsume?

Speaking of the Blue Box, another idea that has been occasionally brought up is to run Mac OS X apps within iOS until the day comes when Mac OS X fades. The problem there is that any given Mac OS X app may require access to APIs and processes that have been stripped from iOS. That simplification of iOS is one reason after all, why we never see a spinning beach ball in iOS. All in all, I don’t see this as a productive path.

Dual Boot?

Perhaps a better idea is to develop technologies that allow both OSes to alternately run on next generation hardware. I and others have fantasized about a next generation MacBook Air that has a removable display lid. When detached, it’s an iPad. When connected to the keyboard and base assembly, it boots into Mac OS X. That’s just a fantasy, but it does when our appetite for creative thinking by Apple. In fact, other more concrete concepts, driven by actual patents, may be forthcoming on the new MBA.

What Developers Think

The best article I’ve seem on the developer take is at ars technica. A small group of developers believes that the two OSes will merge over time, but that it will take years to do so.

Left unsaid were the politics, strategy, and economics of such a decision by Apple, some of which I got into above. It may be that, at some point, Apple decides that there are just too many professional and technical UNIX users out there who love Macs to do anything that would upset them. A premature push into a merger, even if technically possible, has UI implications that many customers just don’t want to deal with. Maybe it’s better to let time, technology, and the sales of iOS devices naturally lead the way rather than trying to force the issue.

Developing Technology

One key difference between the iOS and Mac OS X is that in iOS we’re on a mobile device, and touching the screen, via multitouch, is a not only a joy but easy to do. On the other hand, large desktop or notebook displays, however, pose an ergonomic challenge. No one wants to sit at a desk and reach out to a 27-inch vertical display. That would strain the arms and neck. This is the most common concern expressed about such a OS merger.

In the Apple Magic Trackpad we see an early technical approach. For now, it enables users who’d rather use a trackpad than a mouse, and does support certain gestures, but the gestures are Mac OS X related and it isn’t a complete ergonomic solution as Gizmodo points out. The Apple Magic Trackpad is just the initial foray into thinking about how it could be expanded to provide an iOS-like interface to the Mac OS.

Backing Into a Solution

Right now, I don’t think Apple has any concrete plans to force a merger of the OSes. But you can be sure Scott Forstall thinks about it. In 2010, people recognize the value of Mac OS X on the desktop and in notebooks compared to ultra-portable devices. In time, however, the vision of Mr. Jobs, business opportunities, technology, serendipity, and some really creative thinking will likely lead to a day when the old WIMP interface of Mac OS X is gone, even if slightly modified Mac OS X apps still run on our future Mac products.

It’s going to be a tricky, interesting path for Apple to follow, and it’ll be, I believe, evolutionary, not revolutionary. The technical aspects of merging the two OSes are just part of the problem. Timing, customer feedback and perception, financial concerns, cannibalization, the ingenuity of Apple engineers and developers will likely lead to the final solution. In the end, however, one thing is almost certain. In 2015, no shipping Apple product will include a mouse. You can take that to the bank.