The once and future OS for Apple

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For Apple watchers, the company is always a bit like the proverbial duck: floating seemingly calm and placid above the water while paddling furiously just below it. Which is why it’s often hard to gauge exactly what the company is up to, especially when the current is changing.

In the last few weeks, both my colleague Jason Snell and I have looked ahead to what Apple might be envisioning for the future of its devices. I’ve opined on ARM-powered Macs; Jason’s wondered about the possibility of a laptop running iOS. In a recent conversation—on our secret podcast, which you should check out—we started to put some pieces together and conjectured that maybe these aren’t two different stories but rather one larger tale of what Apple’s future might hold.

What if, to paraphrase the late Steve Jobs himself, these aren’t two platforms, but one platform with a bunch of devices?

Team players

Yes, I know: people have been worried about the peanut butter of iOS getting into the chocolate of their macOS since the iPhone’s. But this isn’t necessary about the Mac getting iOS-ified anymore than it is iOS getting Mac-ced. This is about Apple taking what it’s learned from the last thirty-plus years of the Mac and the last decade of the iPhone and trying to create something new from the ground up.

Both iOS and macOS have individual strengths to bring to the party. In iOS, Apple has created a platform with unparalleled security down to its roots. There’s no platform in existence that is deployed on the number of devices as iOS—in the hundreds of millions!—that also boasts its impressive security record. And in macOS, the company has not only developed a platform that has stood the test of time, adapting to multiple architecture shifts over the course of decades, but also one that brings power and customizability to users.

But where they each have strengths, they also feature commensurate shortcomings. iOS still can’t match the multitasking ability of the Mac. The Mac aspires to the ease of use that iOS’s touch-based UI brings, but doesn’t quite get there. And that’s okay—they’re different things.

So what if there were a third thing?

Unification, not convergence

Tim Cook has made no bones about his distaste for “toaster fridges,” devices like Microsoft’s Surface, which try to straddle the line between traditional PCs and touch-based tablets. That’s understandable: most devices that have tried to exist in both spheres have been underwhelming at best. But that’s in large part because they’ve felt like jury-rigged attempts to cram already existing systems into boxes they were never meant to go into. We haven’t really seen a major platform-maker take a crack at what happens if they rip it all down to the foundation and start fresh.

So, instead of, say, considering tablets and laptops two entirely different platforms, what if they were two devices built atop a single platform—the same way that laptops and desktops both run macOS or phones and tablets both run iOS. The same software platform, different hardware.

It’s just a different way of slicing the pie. Instead of making our axis touchscreen versus physical-keyboard-based, we could be looking at a single operating system that could accommodate everything from desktops down to phones. Rather than making tradeoffs based on which user interface you prefer, you could do so based on the physical form factor that suits you best. Some might even be able to adapt between multiple form factors, i.e. a laptop or tablet.

I know: it sounds crazy. But it’s also, to my mind, inevitable. Maintaining two major connected but independent platforms has got to be a challenge for the company. And, frankly, when you get down to it, iOS devices have more commonalities with Macs than differences. And those commonalities seem like a pretty good place to start.

What’s next?

The next big thing is coming. It may not arrive next year, the year after that, or five years from now. But Apple’s not simply sitting up in its shining city on a hill counting its money. The company invests hugely in research & development, and it’s always looking towards the future, even if—like that frantically paddling duck—it’s not always obvious from the outside.

Remember, Apple started developing Mac OS X while macOS was still a going concern, and the former is now about the age the latter was when it started getting phased out. Likewise, the company had its Intel-based Macs running for years before they made their way to market.

Honestly, the bigger gamble would be suggesting that Apple isn’t working on whatever it is that comes next, because in this business, sitting still is suicide.

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