News travels fast, and by now it should be painfully obvious that Apple is hosting a media event next Wednesday, October 20 at the Cupertino campus, what with all of the rumors circulating on various technology blogs, ours included. The company’s invite touts “Back to the Mac” with the image of a lion peeking out from behind the infamous Apple logo, but what does it all mean?
No one but Steve Jobs and Company knows for sure just yet, but the focus is clearly back on the desktop computer, most likely a first peek at the next Mac OS X 10.7, which many believe will be code-named “Lion” in keeping with the “big cat” theme of past OS updates. We put on our thinking cap and came up with some theories as to what software Apple might have in store for our future.
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
A renewed focus on Mac OS X
Many longtime Mac fans will likely welcome Apple’s renewed focus on Mac OS X after 2010 being primarily dedicated to iOS. The year kicked off with the debut of the iPad in April, went into overdrive with the arrival of the iPhone 4 in June, kicked up more dust with refreshed iPod touches last month and looks to subside in November with the much-anticipated iOS 4.2 update, finally bringing feature parity across the holy triumvirate of Apple’s mobile lineup.
Aside from a few hardware refreshes, software updates and the Magic Trackpad, the year has been relatively quiet on the Mac front. Apple successfully launched Snow Leopard 10.6 more than a year ago and is currently seeding a 10.6.5 update to developers -- but that $29 update was ultimately more about refining and fine-tuning the previous Leopard 10.5, which Apple has done quite successfully. After all, you don’t hear too many folks clamoring for major OS-specific changes lately, even with Mac market share finally over 10 percent in the U.S. for the first time since the ‘90s.
So the real question is, what’s next for the decade-old Mac OS X? Has the desktop OS finally peaked? Can Apple simply “get by” with a new version by making modest tweaks to the user interface we currently know and love, or is it time for a radical new overhaul such as the move from OS 9 to OS X?
Bearding the Lion
Perhaps the most frightening thought for longtime Mac users is that Steve Jobs will simply wake up one morning and decide the current implementation of Mac OS X is yesterday’s news, perhaps feeling there’s no more room to grow. What might Apple offer in its place? Touchscreen-enabled computers running souped-up versions of the iOS apps we currently know and love -- possibly converting the Mac platform into a supercharged iPad.
That spine-chilling prospect out of the way, we’re not writing a eulogy for Mac OS X just yet -- iOS simply isn’t mature enough yet on its own to replace the software that drives today’s Macs, but it’s getting closer with every major update. Next month’s iOS 4.2 will go a long way toward making that dream a reality, blessing the iPad with multitasking and wireless printing via AirPrint for all mobile devices.
Our guess is that 10.7 could very well be the last of its kind for the Mac OS X we know and love today -- after all, if it’s truly codenamed “Lion,” perhaps Apple feels they’ve reached the culmination of their efforts, the highest peak they can climb, given that the animal lion is the truly “king of the jungle.” Assuming we may not see a public release of 10.7 until late 2011 or even 2012, that gives developers and end users plenty of time to prepare for the next paradigm shift -- much as it did a decade ago when it moved on from the now-classic OS 9.
No Cowardly Lion
iOS incorporation beyond iTunes
Given that iOS is essentially a stripped-down version of Mac OS X to begin with, what if Apple found a way to incorporate iOS into Mac OS X, with an eye toward phasing out OS X further down the road? It would require some kind of new iOS-driven user interface that worked inside Mac OS X as seamlessly as possible -- perhaps as its own window in the same way that Parallels Desktop can run Windows or Linux virtualized, or maybe even as seamlessly as Rosetta was able to run OS 9 programs within Mac OS X.
If it sounds far-fetched, keep in mind that Apple has historically made major operating system advances as delicately as possible -- for example, allowing 68k applications to continue to run (via emulation) under the PowerPC processor beginning with System 7.1.2. At the time, Apple and other developers released programs as “fat binaries” (similar to universal Mac OS X apps that run on both Intel and G3/G4 processors today), bridging the gap between older 68k and newer, faster PowerPC processors, much as Rosetta does now for software written before the switch to Intel.
The new Apple TV may be a good example of what’s to come -- despite appearing to have the same Front Row-style interface from the original ATV box (which was powered by Mac OS X Tiger 10.4), the new black box is powered by iOS 4.1, which is currently driving iPhone 4 and iPod touch devices. Will it also be powering future Mac computers as well?
Our guess is that Apple won’t try to reinvent the wheel and make Mac OS X more touchscreen-friendly, as other PC manufacturers have tried to do (mostly unsuccessfully) with Windows. Short term, they’re more likely to incorporate the best aspects of iOS into the Mac OS X as we know it today -- paving the way for a full-on touchscreen OS further down the road, and probably a total convergence of the desktop and mobile OS.
A new interface
Touchscreen or not, whatever powers future Mac computers will have big shoes to fill in the wake of Snow Leopard, which has been widely praised as the best Mac OS to date. It’s hard to imagine too many major improvements to the streamlined user interface we’ve all become accustomed to, unless Apple plans a radical overhaul.
That mostly leaves improvements to existing technologies that haven’t lived up to expectations, such as the Dashboard, which still holds a lot of promise after a few generations of Mac OS X. For instance, why not make those tiny widgets work on the Finder’s Desktop instead of having to go into the Dashboard at all? While the Dock works just great for most users, many feel that there’s still room for improvement there as well, particularly power users who want to have a lot of applications just a click away.
Third-party developers probably have the most to fear from the next Mac OS X -- mostly because any attempt to keep things fresh means that Apple may decide to implement their best ideas into the OS itself (which is exactly what happened in the case of Dashboard itself). It’s almost a miracle that great third-party programs like Default Folder haven’t gotten copied lock, stock and barrel by Cupertino, but slowly but surely the Finder windows get more and more of that app’s capabilities.
The other dilemma is that so many of our daily computing needs keep us connected to the Internet, locked inside our browser of choice -- be it Safari, Firefox, Google Chrome or Opera. At what point does Apple decide that the Finder itself should be tossed to the curb -- a relic of a bygone Mac era -- and replaced entirely with Safari? Apple’s own MobileMe web apps are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and at least for casual users, the web versions of Mail, Address Book and iCal probably get more use than their desktop equivalents. At what point does Apple decide to stop devoting time, money and energy to free desktop apps included with the OS?
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block for future OS X growth are indeed the applications themselves, many of which are still full of bloated code from generations past that don’t take advantage of much of what the modern 64-bit operating system has to offer.
iLife '11 and iWork '11
Speaking of which, we’d say there’s also a very good chance we’ll see new versions of iLife and iWork unveiled next Wednesday, in keeping with the company’s recent trend of releasing updates for those suites every other year as well as recent and persistent rumors.
Given that one iLife component (iMovie) and all three iWork applications (Pages, Numbers and Keynote) have already gone iOS, the mobile versions of these apps may provide some clues on what to expect from iLife ’11 and iWork ’11 (as they’ll no doubt be called, given that 2010 is winding to a close already). We forecast deeper social networking capabilities and ever-closer ties between the desktop and mobile iOS devices, at the very least.
For instance, the iWork iOS apps need a better way to share files with the desktop version -- perhaps a direct way to Open or Import files from your iPad, edit them on your Mac and then save them right back out to the iPad again, rather than the less-intuitive way we presently use to transfer them via iTunes. The desktop versions of Pages, Numbers and Keynote could all take some cues from their iOS editions as far as keeping things simple (we’re looking at you, Microsoft Office).
Better yet, perhaps iWork itself is a candidate to go entirely web-based -- Apple has already dabbled with the idea by sharing files via the iWork.com beta website, and Google Docs has mostly proven that web apps are indeed viable. But Apple has its work cut out for it ramping up its cloud-based services.
On the iLife front, iPhoto is likely to make the jump to iOS at some point in the future (allowing full-featured editing at least on the more capable iPad), but there are plenty of improvements to be had on the desktop first, including better library management without third-party apps and maybe even support for multiple users -- not every family member has their own computer. There’s also got to be a better way to manage duplicate images within different libraries, such as a husband and wife who want to maintain their own library but share some chunk of photos between them.
iMovie has already made the jump to iOS, but it’s a walled garden -- you can’t start a project on the iPhone 4 and then finish it on the Mac, which would certain be a killer feature for an already slick app. We’d also like to see more interoperability between iLife applications, such as the ability to use iPhoto’s awesome slideshow templates right inside an iMovie project -- without having to export it first.
We’ve predicted before that iBooks could make the jump from iOS to the Mac, and it would make a perfect fit as a new component of iLife ’11 -- sure, most people won’t want to sit at their computer to read e-books, but it could come in handy for those times when the iPad is in another room and you have a few minutes to kill by reading a few pages of the latest bestseller. Amazon already has Kindle for the Mac and even Barnes & Noble’s Nook software is available for Windows PCs, so Apple should capitalize on its rumored iBookstore sales slump by making iBooks available everywhere possible.
The Lion King
Is Lion the next big cat?
Whatever Steve Jobs and Company trots out on Wednesday, you can bet there will be a curveball or two that no one sees coming -- surely Apple hasn’t kept the “Lion” codename sidelined all these years without the intention of using it to advance the desktop OS in ways we can’t even imagine right now. While most users are quite comfortable with Mac OS X just the way it is, technology marches forward and companies like Apple have to keep innovating if they want to survive.
And we’re not done yet -- stay tuned for further speculation on what we might see if Apple also decides to introduce new hardware on October 20 as well.
Watch our live blog of the event here.
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