Converging Operating Systems, the MacBook Air and Appliances

October 21st, 2010

“Back to the Mac” turned out to mean something a little different than we all figured: Jobs said that they are bringing advances made in iOS and mobile devices to the Mac.

Apple showed off a few big examples of this cross-pollination yesterday, including the Mac App Store, Launchpad (which amounts to a home screen for the Mac), full-screen applications and the MacBook Air’s use of flash storage, but there are smaller, more subtle examples as well. The iPhoto ’11 demonstration showed iPhoto’s new full-screen feature, and it uses what looks like a tab bar from iOS and popover-like controls, and the FaceTime application is a self-contained window. Video-chat is on the left and contacts are on the right side, and you can move between favorites, recents and the contacts list using a control similar to a tab bar. When we see what all of Mac OS 10.7 looks like, I’m expecting much of the UI to reflect this.

The MacBook Air, too, received a more significant update than is apparent. Jobs said the new MacBook Air is what happens when an iPad and a MacBook hook up—in other words, they are taking what they learned from their mobile devices and applying it to their computers as well. In the first version, this means an incredibly small and thin computer, that is ready to work right when you open the lid, and fantastic battery life.

But I think it means more than that. What really interests me in this isn’t just the UI changes we are seeing. What is interesting to me is I think this is a major turning point for Apple: it is the first step in unifying Mac OS X and iOS, and a shift in MacBooks toward computing appliances rather than general-purpose computers.

A One OS Future

In July, Patrick Rhone wrote,

Apple is rewiring our brains for touch.

Just like with the iPhone and iPad, Apple is steadfastly reinforcing the idea that touch is the way we interact with our computers. The Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad are just one more step in that direction.

Patrick is exactly right: Apple is preparing us for touch computing. It’s insightful that, in Monday’s earnings call, Jobs noted they already have millions of people “trained” for touch computing. He meant for the iPad, but it was in the context of Jobs’s larger point—that the iPad is clearly going to reduce notebook sales.

These are small steps, inching us along so we remain comfortable, toward a fundamentally different conception of computers, where not only do we directly interact with them through touch, but they are more focused on specific uses than being open boxes for any conceivable use.

Apple is not merely carrying over some concepts (App Store, home screen, full-screen applications) and UI elements to Mac OS X to improve it. I think they want to merge iOS and Mac OS X.

This doesn’t mean that in a decade we will all be using fully touchscreen Macs; rather, I think there will remain distinct user interfaces for touch input and more involved, full computer use, but these will end up being modes rather than discrete OSes. Mobile devices will only use touch, but Macs will get touch as well. Tilt your iMac to lay almost horizontally, like an architect’s table, and it will enter touch mode; tilt it up, and it is in normal computer mode. Introducing iOS’s concepts and UI elements smooths the transition between the two modes, so they are really one OS, but with altered user interfaces for different uses.

I’ve been skeptical of building in touch input for Macs, but for many purposes, touch is a better input method. Working with photos, web browsing and reading, for example, all work better with touch than a mouse and keyboard. Just as important, maintaining two separate OSes is a drain on Apple’s development resources. Separate OSes would diverge, moving further away from each other until they have very little common. That’s counter to one of Apple’s most important strategies, which is to make products that all share some common elements so they can distribute innovations across their entire product lines. OS X is a perfect example of this in the first place; using the same OS across their Mac and mobile devices allows them to maximize their development resources and innovations.

Worse, maintaining separate OSes also creates strong pressure for two divisions—mobile and computers—to develop, and those two things would further reduce Apple’s ability to innovate. Apple not only has shared innovations on the software side, but also on the hardware side. Apple has moved toward using aluminum chassis and glass screens for much of its product lines, which not only saves resource and manufacturing costs, but leads to better products overall because advantages gained in development of one product are used throughout Apple’s other products as well. For example, not only do we get fantastic batteries in iPhones and iPads, but we receive the same technological improvements in our notebooks, too. This relies on product development teams to remain open, but keeping Apple’s mobile and Mac lines separate could lead to the two groups separating into distinct and insular divisions, and that would be a shame. Separate, insular divisions, too, weakens Apple’s ability to have a concerted, long-term and integrated strategy for where they are moving as a company.

They need to prevent that from happening, so they should cross the two worlds. There is a lot of risk here, of course; we are talking, quite literally, about the future of computing. This will be as fundamental a change to how we use computers as the graphical user interface and the mouse were to personal computers. As I noted, this is not just a shift toward touch user interfaces for computers, but a change in how we conceive of computers, too.

Computers as Appliances

A “computer” used to be a device where most parts were user-replaceable—new processor, graphics card, and in notebooks, memory, batteries and sometimes hard drives. Computers were viewed as open devices that could be configured or altered to meet the user’s needs. Apple has been shifting away from this since 2008 when they released the first MacBook Air, which did not include a user-replaceable battery, memory, an optical drive or an ethernet port. While the battery could be replaced by unscrewing the bottom panel, not building in a removable battery was a significant change for a computer. Soldering the RAM directly to the board was an even bigger shift.

The MacBook Air was Apple’s first computer built for a very specific use, rather than general computing. A built-in battery non-upgradeable memory and leaving out an optical drive allowed Apple to save significant space, which both led to a larger battery and a smaller computer. Apple was able to do this because the MacBook Air had a very specific use-case: it was for users who did not need a top-end processor, graphics processor or a lot of memory, but did need a full keyboard, excellent portability and the best battery life possible. That’s rather specific, and if it didn’t fit a user, there wasn’t anything they could to do. This started the shift for Apple toward computers as appliances.

If the first generation MacBook Air was a step toward being an appliance, the new MacBook Air is a leap. Users could, technically, open their first generation MacBook Airs and install a new hard drive or SSD; this isn’t an option anymore. Like an iPhone or iPad, the new MacBook Air uses flash storage that is users cannot replace. This, of course, means nothing is user-upgradeable on them—how you purchase it is how it will remain the last day of its use.

When Jobs introduced the new MacBook Air, he said this is the next generation of MacBooks, and that they think it is the future of notebooks. I don’t think he just means non-replaceable flash storage, but notebook computers that are designed specifically for certain uses, and built to just work rather than offer users full control of their computers. Flash storage not only makes the computer much faster and uses less space, but also makes it more reliable (no moving parts) and means it is instantly usable when it wakes up. Rather than diagnose why their computer isn’t working correctly or isn’t fast enough, they just use it.

The addition of an App Store to the Mac is a part of this. Not only does an App Store give users one place for looking for and purchasing applications, but it solves one of Mac OS X’s weakest points, especially for new users: installing applications. The current method is a mess; users must download an application, open a disk image, drag the application into their Applications folder, and then eject the disk image. With the App Store, though, they click “Buy”, and it installs. That’s it. Launchpad, too, solves this problem. Users don’t need to know where their applications are stored—they just click the Launchpad icon and open the application they want to use. One place for finding them, one place for launching them.

The App Store and Launchpad smooth over Mac OS X’s roughest edge. They are borrowing the App Store and homescreen from iOS to do this, but more importantly, they are borrowing iOS’s central concept: a focus on doing rather than tinkering. That’s a significant change, even for a company who often says their computers just work.

Some of these changes—the App Store in particular—could take a bad road and change how we use computers for the worse (and I will discuss this in future articles), but Apple’s willing to take this risk, because this has always been their philosophy. When Apple created the Macintosh, Jobs viewed it not as a computer, as people understood it—but as a device that anyone could use and would make their lives better. Touch computing will change how we use and conceive of computers, but the idea underlying Apple’s iOS-devices will be even more important in their evolution.