Ten Myths of Apple’s iPad: 10. It needs Mac OS X
February 26th, 2010
Daniel Eran Dilger
Here’s segment ten in my series taking on iPad myths: no the iPad doesn’t need to run Mac OS X.
Ten Myth of Apple’s iPad: 1. It’s just a big iPod touch
Ten Myth of Apple’s iPad: 2. iPad needs Adobe Flash
Ten Myths of Apple’s iPad: 3. It’s ad-evil
Ten Myths of Apple’s iPad: 4. It was over-hyped and under-delivered
Ten Myths of Apple’s iPad: 5. It’s just a Tablet PC or Kindle
Ten Myths of Apple’s iPad: 6. It needs HDMI for HD video output
Ten Myths of Apple’s iPad: 7. It needs cameras
Ten Myths of Apple’s iPad: 8. It’s a curse for mobile developers
Ten Myths of Apple’s iPad: 9. It can’t multitask
Ten Myths of Apple’s iPad: 10. It needs Mac OS X
Dear Mac enthusiasts: 10. It’s a myth the iPad needs Mac OS X.
One of the first complaints about the iPad was that it was running the “simple” iPhone OS rather than packing the “full power” of Mac OS X. A lot of Mac users have expressed at least some disappointment that the iPad isn’t capable of running their existing software, and therefore can’t be used as a full replacement for carrying a MacBook.
There are a number of reasons why Apple chose to base the iPad on the iPhone OS. Before getting into those reasons however, it needs to be pointed out that “powerful” has long been used as a worthless word in terms of software. Pundits have long flattered Microsoft by designating its software as “powerful” without ever offering any metric to delineate just why that was supposedly the case.
Microsoft Windows was an unfunny joke throughout the early 90s, coasting into place many years after Apple introduced the Macintosh and offering no real technical leaps in advance of the Mac or even the humble Commodore Amiga, let alone the advanced NeXTSTEP operating system from the late 80s.
Even Microsoft’s “powerful” new Windows NT didn’t get to the point of being able to reliably run a server for all of a month without crashing until the late 90s. Yet in the minds of Windows Enthusiasts, Microsoft’s software was always the epitome of “powerful.”
Why was that? Ostensibly, Windows was “powerful” simply because a lot of people were using it. Realistically however, Windows was in wide use because it was perceived as cheap and safe option; much of the time it just served as a way to run old DOS apps and to host simple terminal emulation sessions, something Windows is still widely used to do even though it isn’t actually needed or providing any value in this role.
Keep in mind that even during Window’s heyday, ATMs and PBX phone systems that actually needed to be reliable used OS/2 instead, and high profile financial companies and government intelligence agencies who needed rapid development tools that actually worked favored NeXTSTEP. Really, Windows was ubiquitously described as “powerful” simply because it was a positive-sounding word that demanded no supporting proof for its application.
How do you quantify how “powerful” an operating system is? Everyone throws the term around as a meaningless description of goodness in software. In reality, So would having a “Mac Pad” really be more useful than an iPhone OS-powered iPad?
Mac OS X versus iPhone OS
Consider the differences between Apple’s desktop Mac OS X and the iPhone OS used in the iPhone, iPod touch, and the iPad. Both use essentially the same Mach/BSD kernel; above that the iPhone OS supplies a Unix environment and hosts Apple’s proprietary Cocoa Touch application environment for running native mobile apps.
Mac OS X on the desktop also provides a Cocoa environment, but also hosts a Carbon environment for running a polished version of the legacy Classic Mac APIs; a command line Unix shell; a Java environment; and the ability to load additional runtimes such as web browsers plugins, which can execute Flash or Silverlight applications.
The problem with the Unix command line, Carbon, Java, Flash and Silverlight is that none of them are designed for a multitouch environment. In order to create the iPhone, Apple took its best, most modern and advanced API from Mac OS X and adapted it into Cocoa Touch, which was designed explicitly for multitouch. Those other application environments were all designed around a computing environment dominated by a command line or mouse pointer.
Apple has done something like this twice before. The first was the Macintosh, which moved users from the command line to a fully graphical environment. The second was Newton, which envisioned a move from the conventional mouse-based desktop to a pen-based mobile device. That era of pen-based computing never gained traction for a number of reasons, but today Apple is again fearlessly pioneering multitouch without compromise.
A veneer of touch
Microsoft is still trying to overlay just enough of a veneer of touch on top of its mouse-based Windows 7 to sell touch as a feature, while simultaneously also adding a thin layer of touch on its stylus-based Windows Mobile in order to incite some interest in its failing mobile platform. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s also how Microsoft introduced its graphical computing platform: it simply tacked a thin layer of Mac-like graphical interface on top of DOS.
That forced users to frequently revert to the command line in the same way that today’s Windows 7 touchscreen users will be reaching for their mouse and Windows Phone 7 users will be reaching for their stylus whenever they do anything that requires more than the thin facade of touch that Microsoft thought to offer.
Java and Flash and Silverlight may similarly scramble to tack some touch features on as an afterthought, but those platforms are all tied to mouse pointer in the same way that Mac OS X’s desktop Carbon and Cocoa environments are. If Apple simply tried to sell a tablet version of the desktop Mac OS X, it would be just as uninteresting and handicapped by mediocrity as Bill Gates’ Tablet PCs.
Cocoa Touch in the iPhone OS isn’t a veneer of touch, it’s designed for multitouch all the way through. And unlike hybrid attempts to deliver a smattering of touch as a bullet point feature (Windows 7, Windows Mobile 7, Flash, and so on), Cocoa Touch isn’t handicapped by a legacy of non-touch content. All of the iPhone’s native apps were created since the advent of Cocoa Touch, and Apple simply prevented it from running legacy code that was not designed with a multitouch interface in mind.
The software Catch-22
The reason why Microsoft and everyone else is so slow to make bold leaps into the future is because of the fear of the classic catch-22 facing new computer platforms. Whenever anyone tries to introduce something truly new, they have to sell users on buying something that doesn’t have any software, while also trying to market the new platform to developers in hopes they’ll create software for it before there’s ever an installed base of users.
This problem hits every new platform. It has historically favored lesser platforms supported by legacy cruft but with a large installed base (like Windows) than exceptional platforms that shatter the mold to deliver really new technology, but which struggle to develop a following (like NeXTSTEP). Apple skirted this issue on the iPhone by leveraging legacy in an important way while still delivering something very new.
The iPhone OS drew upon the existing skills of Mac OS developers in terms of both Unix and Cocoa development expertise, but also introduced an entirely new user interface and experience specifically suited to multitouch. Apple also leveraged its iPod business to attract a very large audience for the iPhone, something many rivals with a kernel of a good idea have not been able to do, including Palm’s WebOS and even Google’s Android.
Developers, Developers, Developers
There are lots of developers who would like to create software for Android for politically ideological reasons, but simply don’t because the platform lacks a large enough audience to be commercially viable. The installed base of users Android has attracted is both fractionalized by a tyranny of choice in vendors and models of different specifications, and also less attractive in general because it is largely made up of people who don’t want to pay for software.
This is the same problem confronting Linux on the desktop. Neither platform has enough of the customers who matter to developers, and therefore neither platform has the kind of commercial development that could attract customers who matter. This catch-22 has no simple solution. Google hopes that its partners will eventually sell enough phones to create a large installed base, but so far has only been able to attract hobbyist developers and tech enthusiast buyers, neither of which is the foundation of a commercially viable platform.
With the iPad, Apple has a vast installed base of iPhone and iPod touch users, many of whom are expressing interest in the iPad. Additionally, Apple has a large stable of enthusiastic mobile developers ecstatic about the prospect of reaching a guaranteed installed base of tablet users with iPhone apps expanded to take advantage of the iPad’s relatively large screen. App Store customers buy lots of apps, and developers are feeding themselves on that demand.
One OS platform, custom fit for various needs
Apple’s iPhone OS platform not only makes more sense on the iPad than Mac OS X in terms of technology (expressly designed for multitouch, capable of running on lower powered mobile hardware, better suited to take advantage of a 1024×768 resolution screen), but also in terms of developer attention. Apple’s installed base of Mac users is around 30 million, while its iPhone OS device users now exceed 75 million. Guess which platform is going to get a more enthusiastic response from developers!
Microsoft, while wildly successful with its DOS and then Win32 API development, has not been able to successfully translate its Windows platform to PDAs (consider the failed Handheld PCs and tepid Pocket PCs) nor to mobile phones (the pathetic Windows Mobile) nor to MP3 players (the dead PlaysForSure and the stillborn Zune) nor to tablets (the moribund Tablet PC and UMPC).
In contrast, Apple has been able to adapt Mac OS X’s Cocoa API from the iPhone to the iPod touch to the iPad, and uses it within Apple TV. Each product category uses the same operating system technology to deliver a customized experience and development environment expressly suited for that type of device. Multitouch devices use the iPhone OS, while Apple’s desktop and notebook computers use Mac OS X.
The scalable Mac OS
Interestingly however, Apple’s chief operations officer Tim Cook referred to both operation systems as the “Mac OS” collectively when talking about Apple’s strategy. Cook said the Mac OS is “amazingly scalable” from the iPod touch to iPad to iPhone to Macintosh. No other company on earth can use the foundation of their operating system that way, he said, making that ability a huge competitive advantage Apple.
So what about the large catalog of software available for the Mac desktop that won’t work on the iPad? The reality is that those apps largely only need a Cocoa Touch user interface. This requires some work, and is what Apple has been working on over the last year with iWork. But because Cocoa Touch is so similar to Cocoa on the Mac desktop, it is straightforwardly easy to create new multitouch applications from existing code (or open source code) that will work well on the iPad.
And so while Adobe and Microsoft struggle to prop up their aging legacy platforms with a veneer of touch-related gimmickry to make them marketable as modern and buzzword compliant, Apple is delivering a multitouch platform that is throughly built for multitouch, but also based upon an operating system familiar to Unix users, Mac developers, and iPhone developers.
Had Apple simply adapted the desktop version of Mac OS X to add some touch features, the company couldn’t claim such a wide head start over its rivals.
Special thanks to SF comedienne KharaCara for helping me with the accompanying video! Leave your comments.