How much will Apple change iOS and OS X?

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Next week, at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference, the company will take the wraps off its upcoming versions of OS X and iOS. Such unveilings have become routine at WWDC, but I have a strong feeling that this year’s unveilings will feel anything but routine. This is shaping up to be a critical year for both of Apple’s operating systems—and the new versions of each should reflect this.

For starters, many believe that iOS (and likely OS X as well) could receive a major cosmetic makeover. Familiar skeuomorphic elements, such as wooden bookcases and leather-bound calendars, might be dumped in favor of a cleaner, flatter, black-and-white look. While this would be a significant shift in design, it shouldn’t have much effect on how each operating system performs. But the demise of skeuomorphism may be only the beginning of sweeping changes coming to this year’s OS updates.

OS X 10.9 and iOS-ification

When OS X 10.7 Lion arrived a few years ago, Mac users got their first taste of a collection of new features inspired by OS X’s mobile sibling. These iOS-ification features included Launchpad, full-screen apps, the Mac App Store, a resume capability for applications, expanded multitouch gestures, and a limited implementation of app sandboxing.

With each recent OS X release, the Mac starts to look a bit more like iOS.

With OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, Apple pushed still further in this direction, introducing Notification Center, Documents in the Cloud, and new apps (such as Notes and Reminders) that precisely mimicked matching apps on iOS devices.

In my view, many of these changes have made OS X better. For example, with the Mac’s Notes app, you no longer need to go through the quirky route of launching Mail to access Notes documents created on your iPhone. The Notes app provides instant, synced access to all that data. Plus, any additions or changes you make on your Mac are just as quickly and easily synced back to your iPhone.

On the other hand, some of the iOS features ported to the Mac have misfired. As I detailed previously, Documents in the Cloud is so cumbersome and restrictive on the Mac that most users will be happier sticking with Dropbox. Similarly, sandboxing requirements unnecessarily limit the capabilities of apps sold through the Mac App Store.

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All of this has led some in the media (including, at times, me) to express concern about what might happen if Apple continues in this direction for OS X. Others see the existing shift as entirely benign, and believe that these concerns about the future are without merit. As an example of the latter view, Watts Martin recently criticized those who suggest that “the ‘iOS-ification’ of OS X (will) surely lead to OS X either becoming just as locked down as iOS or simply merging with iOS in a few years”—stating that “no real evidence supports this.”

I believe Martin both exaggerates and too easily dismisses these concerns about the future. However, I concede that the matter remains unresolved and is open to debate—besides, the only way it will ever be settled with certainty is if and when Apple makes its long-term intentions clear. And the way Apple typically does this is through the changes it introduces in each succeeding version of OS X.

This brings me to OS X 10.9. If Apple has plans to push iOS-ification to any sort of extreme, this year seems like the perfect opportunity to make such plans known. After more than two years of wading in the shallow end of the pool, why delay any longer? By now, Mac users are as primed to accept a bigger change toward a more iOS-like Mac as they are ever likely to be.

Does Apple plan to require sandboxing of all apps, even ones not sold from the Mac App Store? Does Apple hope to eliminate the Finder in favor of a navigation system more similar to iOS? Will Apple make it more difficult (or even impossible) to access Terminal and other “under the hood” apps, similar to the absence of such apps on iOS devices? If so, now would be a good time to make this evident.

Personally, I believe this is exactly what Apple would like to do. Apple may not desire an OS X that is as “locked down” as iOS, but it would certainly like something close to that. In fact, in some alternate reality where the creation of iOS preceded OS X, rather than the other way around, I believe this is the way that OS X would work already.

That said, I also believe that Apple realizes such a shift is currently untenable and would lead to a user revolt. But that doesn’t mean such a move is out of the question. Apple has made decisions in the past that risked a revolt, and it could do so again. But I doubt it will happen in this situation. Apple is more likely to keep any extreme changes optional, just as existing iOS-ification features work today: Launchpad can replace the Finder for launching apps, but you’re not required to use it. The user’s Library folder is invisible by default, but you can still access it.

So it will be with most new iOS-like features in OS X 10.9. One other possibility, as I speculated previously, is that Apple splits OS X in two (although I suspect we would have heard rumors of this by now, if this were the plan for OS X 10.9). At the very least, Apple needs to retain enough of OS X to keep the Mac viable as a platform for developers to create new apps (both for OS X and iOS).

This should be the year that Apple lays its cards on the table. If there are few or no signs of further iOS-ification of OS X, I would assume it means that Apple has gone about as far as it intends to go in this direction—at least for the foreseeable future. If we instead see a major expansion of such features, I would assume that a complete transition to a more iOS-like version of OS X is well under way. Even features that remain optional today will become required over the next few years, as the old “legacy” technology is dropped. Which way is Apple going? We should know for sure in a few days.

iOS 7 ossification

With iOS 7, the situation is almost the opposite of OS X 10.9. Rather than a concern that iOS 7 may introduce too much change, the worry is that iOS has succumbed to “ossification” and may, if anything, not offer enough change.

iOS 6's big new feature was Maps. That could have gone better.

When Apple released iOS 6, it touted more than 200 new features. But few of these features substantially changed the look, feel, or operation of the software: Siri added some new capabilities; Facebook was “integrated”; Photo Streams could be shared; FaceTime could work over cellular. While these are not trivial additions, they are not the sort of changes that turn heads. Granted, iOS 6 also had a major new version of Maps—and as you may recall, that didn’t work out especially well.

This restrained rate of change has generally held for all iOS upgrades over the past several years. In fact, much of the current iOS interface—from the lock screen to the home screen to the virtual keyboard—appears almost identical to how it looked and worked all the way back to the release of the first iPhone.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. As the sayings go: “There’s no point in change for change’s sake,” and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You certainly don’t want to rush an unreliable new technology to market (see Maps). But after several years of limited advancements, Apple is at the point where we can reasonably expect some major new features this year. And given the advances made by competing Android devices, there is increased pressure on Apple to do so. Apple’s next big thing doesn’t have to be a new hardware device; it can be a revamped iOS.

For starters, how about allowing customization of the lock screen, so that users can check things such as weather and stocks without having to unlock the device and pull down Notification Center or launch apps? How about permitting widgets, small apps that can pop up while you remain in another app—such as a calculator you can use without having to exit your currently active app? Even better, how about full multitasking, so you could do things like scan your Twitter feed on the left side of your screen while a video plays on the right? The rumor mill has hinted at other features that may be coming, from fingerprint scanning to expanded methods for making digital payments.

Whatever Apple may have planned, don’t make the mistake of thinking that Apple hurriedly made its decisions a few months ago, largely in response to pressure from competitors and a declining stock value. Apple doesn’t work that way. Rather, these will be ideas that have been in careful development for years, with Apple finally ready to take off the wraps. In any case, I believe that this is the year for Apple to make some bold moves with iOS and OS X alike. We’ll find out for sure next week.

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