Will iPad get Mac's Spaces virtual desktop?

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from Network World.

The iPad could eventually get the Mac's system for managing different desktops or “workspaces” at once, or something like it, based on a recently revealed patent filing by Apple.

Mac OS X offers a feature called Spaces, which lets users group together applications and windows. These groups are variously called desktops, virtual desktops or workspaces: Each one is like a separate “home screen” for your computer. You can create one space for work applications, another for a particular work project, another for personal applications, still another for music or videos. With a combination of keystrokes, you can quickly switch between them. Apple introduced Spaces to OS X with the release of OS X 10.5 (Leopard) in 2007.

The patent, recently published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, describes a way in which Spaces could be used on a portable multi-function device with a touchscreen, such as the iPad.

The filing was picked up by PatentlyApple.com, which focuses on Apple patents and what they reveal about Apple’s research activities and possible priorities. This patent is No. 20110078624, originally filed in Q3 2009, according to PatentlyApple’s Jack Purcher. (As the site notes, “Patents shouldn’t be digested as rumors or fast-tracked according to rumor timetables. Apple patents represent true research that could lead to future products and should be understood in that light.”)

The patent text and diagrams summarized by Purcher show a grid of workspaces, similar to that on the Mac. Touching the screen with specific gestures lets a user create workspaces with specific applications including open ones, move between the workspaces, move windows or applications from one workspace to another, and view all of them at once.

The application says a touch method of “manipulating workspace views” will “reduce the cognitive burden on a user” as well as conserve battery power.

The patent could indicate a Spaces-like functionality to be introduced in the current iOS, or a more ambitious change, according to GigaOm’s Darrell Etherington, writing in the Apple Blog.

“On iOS in its current state, this might mean showing all recently opened apps that normally reside in the multitasking tray; each as its own distinct space with a thumbnail preview of the app's last state between shutdown,” Etherington says.

But he reads the patent as showing an iOS that looks and feels more like OS X, specifically the upcoming Lion release—“a system by which [iOS] apps appear on separate desktops in much the same way they do now on OS X,” Etherington says. “That opens up the intriguing possibility that Apple either is or has at one time conceived of a more OS X-like desktop interface on the iPad, with the possibility of multiple existing apps open on each, for instance.”

Though iOS is based on a subset of Mac OS X, it is now influencing Apple's development of the Mac operating system. In February, Apple released a developer preview of Lion, showcasing a range of ideas and features adopted from the iOS-based iPad tablet. One example is Lion’s Mission Control, which combines two existing applications, Expose and Dashboard, to create a single view of all active applications and windows on the computer. Gestures let users swipe the screen to zoom out and see all open windows grouped together based on their application, and see thumbnails of full screen applications.

Etherington interprets this two-way borrowing between the platforms as evidence that Apple is moving toward a common codebase, a unified OS that can be deployed across a range of form factors.

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