Imagine iPad, Mac Combined - InformationWeek
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Larry Seltzer
Larry Seltzer
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Imagine iPad, Mac Combined

Apple might publicly scoff at Windows 8's combination of the PC and tablet into one platform, but it has to be at least thinking about whether it could and should do the same. The best approach would be to add touch features to OS X so that eventually it could replace iOS.

Apple's and Google's efforts at mobile devices treat them as a completely new and separate class of devices. Even before them, Microsoft did essentially the same thing with Windows Mobile. Yes, it used the name "Windows" and there were superficial similarities to the real Windows in the UI and the programming, but they didn't fool anybody.

Microsoft's great, bold gamble with Windows 8 is that combining tablets and PCs into one class of devices is a winning approach that users will love. At this point we just don't know if consumers will buy in, but if they do, Apple has a big problem. Mac OS and iOS are vastly different beasts. They can't easily take the same approach.

So I was intrigued when Apple forced out Scott Forstall, senior VP of iOS software at Apple, and John Browett, senior VP of retail, and one of the rumors I heard was that Forstall had been the leading opponent of greater integration between OS X and iOS. Does the purge mean that CEO Tim Cook aims to pursue such integration?

For the last couple of years, all the feature movement has been from iOS to OS X. Version 10.8 -- Mountain Lion -- does a lot of this: Messages, Notifications, Game Center, and so on. But there has been little if any movement in the other direction, and I'm told this is Forstall's doing.

The publicly-leaked reason for Forstall being asked to leave was his refusal to sign a letter of apology to customers over the Apple iOS Maps debacle. I'm sure a lot of people signed off on Maps and there's lots of blame to go around, but he's supposed to be head cheese on iOS, so failing to accept responsibility publicly looks like the worst sort of arrogance. Cook, who ended up signing the letter, must have been really mad and it's hard to blame him.

It's speculation to say that Apple would merge the futures of iOS and OS X, but let's speculate.

Reasons to merge iOS and OS X a la Windows 8:

  • If Windows 8 is successful, users might come to expect it.
  • One code base is easier to maintain than two.
  • A real chance to expand Mac share of market.
  • Another way to stick it to Google's Android.
  • Apple customers will buy it because Apple makes it.

Reasons to keep iOS and OS X separate:

  • Big loss of face.
  • iOS is thoroughly touch oriented. OS X needs a keyboard and mouse. Apple would need to offer a separate desktop mode like Windows 8. Undesirable and very copycat-looking.
  • OS X code base is all x86/x64; iOS is all ARM. Same problems Microsoft had. Probably Apple would have to start creating Intel-based iOS devices as a bridge to the future. Very disruptive, although Apple customers don't seem to mind being disrupted.

When I think about it, it just won't work to merge iOS and OS X. The philosophies and use cases are just too different. Microsoft might have an easier time carving out a new tablet and phone market having started from nothing, rather than mess with existing users.

If it wants to take a longer-term approach toward unifying the products, Apple's best approach might be either to scale iOS up to where it can also do desktop tasks or -- probably the better approach -- scale OS X down so that it can also handle touch and run on mobile devices. In the long term, if touch Mac devices can do what users want from iPhone and iPads, iOS might just die off.

When Apple began the iOS adventure, ARM was the only plausible approach for an architecture. That's not the case anymore and, as BYTE's George Ou keeps saying, an Intel-based system that has the same power characteristics as an ARM system is a better choice. The same logic works here for Apple as for Microsoft. The advantages of Intel systems are another reason why Apple might want to have touch systems running on them.

So in the end, don't expect iOS and OS X to merge in any way, but I think there's a reasonable case for Apple to try to unify its device and computer platforms. Growing OS X into that role is the way to go.

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