Daniel Eran Dilger
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Ten Myths of Apple’s iPad: 10. It needs Mac OS X

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.

Powerful software?

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?

1990-1995: Microsoft’s Yellow Road to Cairo

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.

Gone in a Flash: More on Apple’s iPhone Web Plans

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.

An Adobe Flash developer on why the iPad can’t use Flash

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.

Inside Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone OS as software markets

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.

Inside Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone OS as core platforms

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 Spectacular Failure of WinCE and Windows Mobile
Why Microsoft’s Zune is Still Failing
Microsoft frets Google’s Nexus One will suffer Zune’s failure

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.


1 dchu220 { 03.01.10 at 10:31 pm }


I can see why it took you so long to make this video. I don’t know how you kept a straight face the whole time.

2 Nick R { 03.02.10 at 7:03 am }


Do I really need to relax? I wasn’t harsh in my comment. I was just asking for a continued heads up. Daniel’s past videos have been nothing like this, and I do find it offensive (in the same way you find it offensive that I find it offensive). What you see as humor, I see as over-the-top and unnecessary. Daniel’s tech insight (the reason we come to the site) has nothing to do with humor or being over-the-top, so I can still find common ground with the readers that like the video. I can come and read the article, you can come and watch the video.

3 ReginaldW { 03.02.10 at 8:39 am }


[Sometimes if there are lots of links a comment is held in moderation until I see it in the queue – Dan]

2. Good grief, can this myth never die? Apple did NOT steal the UI from Xerox, Apple ***PAID*** Xerox with either a huge chunk of shares of Apple or the ability to invest in Apple for a minimal price for permission to look at PARC and the things they were doing there with the intention of bringing those ideas to market. In searching the net, it is supposed to be in the book by Jeffrey S. Young “Steve Jobs, the Journey is the Reward” but I’ve never read the book. Another reference says that Apple was granted a “license” in June 1981 to participate with Xerox in a project to develop SmallTalk. SmallTalk was the primary means to the Xerox graphical interface as far as I know. So, Apple saw what it looked like, but implemented their own interpretation of the graphical front end in ways that far exceeded what Xerox started but never produced something that was a commercial success.

I remember looking at a Xerox machine (Star or Alto, I don’t know which) in 1985 or 1986 when I was working for an Apple dealer and it was in no way similar to a Mac, other than it used a mouse, had windows and was graphical. The entire operation of it was radically different and complicated (compared to the Mac) from what I saw of it being used. Too techy, too expensive, better options from others that torpedoed Xerox efforts.

“Everyone knows how Apple “stole” the GUI from Xerox PARC (they actually licensed it fair and square, and lucky for us, because it’s unlikely Xerox would have taken it to the mass market if Apple hadn’t) and then Microsoft “stole” it from Apple (though Microsoft licensed GUI tech from both Xerox and Apple).”



Additional information is available at a site that was great in its day, like a pre-Roughly Drafted, before the site owner stopped reporting. He pointed out differences, truths and was great at popping Windows superiority myths back in OS 7 & 8 days.

4 gus2000 { 03.02.10 at 9:44 am }

Saying that Xerox invented the GUI is like saying that daVinci invented the helicopter. The devil is in the details.

5 ReginaldW { 03.02.10 at 11:06 am }

Sorry, I should have thought of that, but I tried to point out where info came from. Actually that was the third time, not the second that I tried to send it.

I think that most patents can be traced to previous products, processes, patents, thoughts and ideas. As has been said before by others, we stand on the shoulders of others. What is common for us today was a wonder for our parents, grandparents and those before them. The things that will make us look on in awe will be commonplace to our children and grandchildren.

Plus, what do you want to bet that in a future TV episode of some sort, someone will travel back in time in a helicopter to Da Vinci’s time and lo and behold, guess where he gets the idea from. LOL. Sorry Dan if I’ve stepped on your next video project. :-)

6 ObamaPacman { 03.02.10 at 2:17 pm }

@49 / ulicar,

Sorry to get your hopes up.

“In exchange for the opportunity to invest in a hot new pre-IPO start-up called “Apple,” the Xerox PARC commandos were forced — under protest — to give Apple’s engineers a tour and a demonstration of their work. The result was the Apple Macintosh, which Microsoft later copied to create Windows.”

As to Xerox copyright case against Apple, Xerox lost.

Got any more fantasies you want to post as fact? Thanks for saving us the trouble of going to failblog.

By the way, there is no tooth fairy.

7 gus2000 { 03.02.10 at 4:08 pm }

“By the middle of 1983, I would usually talk with [MS Employee] Neil Konzen on the phone a couple of times a week. He would sometimes request a feature that I would implement for him, or perhaps complain about the way something was done. But most of the time I would answer his various questions about the intricacies of the still evolving API.

I gradually began to notice that Neil would often ask questions about implementation details that he didn’t really need to know about. In particular, he was really curious about how regions were represented and implemented, and would often detail his theories about them to me, hoping for confirmation.

Aside from intellectual curiosity, there was no reason to care about the system internals unless you were trying to implement your own version of it. I told Steve that I suspected that Microsoft was going to clone the Mac, but he wasn’t that worried because he didn’t think they were capable of doing a decent implementation… Microsoft didn’t manage to ship a version of Windows until almost two years later, releasing Windows 1.0 in the fall of 1985. It was pretty crude, just as Steve had predicted, with little of the Mac’s thoughtful elegance. It didn’t even have overlapping windows, preferring a simpler technique called “tiling”. When its utter rejection became apparent a few months later, Bill Gates fired the implementation team and started a new version from scratch, led by none other than Neil Konzen.”

– Andy Herzfeld


8 Shunnabunich { 03.03.10 at 2:52 pm }

I second NormM’s comments about the video: it felt pretty stiff (er, not that way) and scripted. Reading off lines of technical debate while trying to emphasize occurrences of the word “touch” as innuendo just didn’t do it for me. (If KharaCara isn’t technology-minded, it’s understandable that she might be “flying blind” in terms of how to infuse humour into what she’s saying.) The thing about the real Get a Mac ads is that they’re short and witty, often using an on-screen metaphor to represent the central issue addressed by the ad if it can’t be verbally explained in a succinct and easily comprehensible way. Here are a couple that could be done for the iPad (say, if you had a bigger budget):


(MAC and IPAD standing side-by-side.)

MAC: Hi, I’m a Mac.
IPAD: And I’m the new iPad.
MAC: Say, I was wondering — you’re running the same kind of software as the iPhone, right? Why didn’t you go for full-blown Mac OS X like I did?
IPAD: Ehh, that might be a bit…overkill.

(Cut to hypothetical scenario: MAC is standing beside IPAD, who is sitting in a kiddie car which has a gigantic car engine attached. The engine is roaring.)

IPAD (looking at car’s dashboard in near-panic, yelling to be heard over engine noise): I think this is more than I needed! How do I turn it off?!
MAC (also struggling to be heard): Go to the “Engine” menu and press “Shut Down”!
IPAD (poking at dashboard): I…it’s too small, I can’t do it with my finger!
(IPAD pokes the dashboard again; the car suddenly revs and shoots off-screen.)
IPAD: Aaagh!
(A distant crash is heard. MAC is dumbstruck. Cut back to reality, where the two are again standing side-by-side.)

MAC (bemused): Huh. You might have a point there.

(Music finishes; cut to logo.)


(IPAD and PC standing side-by-side. PC has a dark, shiny panel messily duct-taped to his front.)

IPAD: Hi, I’m the new iPad.
PC (very pleased with himself): And I’m a new, *touch-enabled* PC. (pops eyebrows for effect, gesturing to his touch panel)
IPAD: Oh, cool! That must’ve been a huge job, making everything work with your fingers instead of a mouse.
PC: Not really. I just took one of those taskbar enlargement pills I keep getting emails about.
IPAD (a bit puzzled): …Oh. But…what about all your apps and games? Don’t the controls need to be changed a bit to work better with fingers?
PC: Oh, those? You just use the mouse for those.
IPAD: But you just said you’re…a…
PC (feeling quite uncomfortable): A touch-enabled PC, yup. (pause) Man, aren’t buzzwords the coolest thing ever?

(Music finishes; cut to logo.)

Obviously, that’s probably not in the same league as TBWA/Chiat/Day’s work (and Apple would only run “Get a Mac” ads about Macs, not iPads), but you get the picture. I think doing skits that drive your points home is a cool idea, but you need to hold off until you’ve had a chance to really refine it.

9 Michael { 03.03.10 at 8:38 pm }

@ ulicar: “You are confusing quite powerful and a novel approach of vector based UI with an OS. UI is just a shell on top of a command line OS, just as is with Windows, it is with OS X. I am not quite sure how iPhone OS works, but there might be command line in there as well”

Clearly you don’t understand what you’re talking about here. A command line is just a UI (user interface); a method for user interaction with a computer. An operating system doesn’t have to have a command line at all. The original Mac OS never had one.

Windows, which originally ran on top of DOS, was just an application environment it was not a separate operating system. However, DOS was not a “command line OS,” DOS ran a program called COMMAND.COM that allowed a user to enter commands. DOS could run just fine without COMMAND.COM and could even be replaced with something that was not a command line.

OS X doesn’t run on top of anything, it is a complete OS. Yes, it does have a terminal for entering commands, but it is mainly used to interface with the BSD sub-system and other Unix/text based programs.

10 Bryon { 03.04.10 at 5:50 am }

I don’t know if I particularly care for this format. In your shareholder meeting “non-report” you mentioned how boring you were in the other videos – not so! With as much reading as I do throughout the day it was a nice break to hear you narrate your articles. It seems I might be in the minority with my opinion, though…

11 enzos { 03.04.10 at 8:50 pm }

I don’t pretend to know EXACTLY what you’re talking about here (I’m a scientist who uses computers, not a computer scientist) but that was my general understanding from colleagues in CS.


12 Derek Currie { 03.05.10 at 1:01 pm }

As hopefully a sort of cap on this thread, rather than straighten out all the odd rubbish mythology that has been posted, I’ll simply point out that anyone reading this site has a massive library of information at their finger tips. Why the GUI conversation became contentious makes no sense seeing as there is very adequate coverage at Wikipedia. Rather than bicker over nonsense, drop a link! It can be that simple.

Winging a discussion without source material to back up assertions usually ends in big ‘oops’ moments. Been there done that myself plenty of times. Going back to the source for information verification is a basic concept of General Semantics, the study of how to force sanity into verbal discussions. Wikipedia covers that subject adequately as well.

Dan and I have won many the computer warz shoot out by simply posting verifiable facts to counter troll drivel. There’s nothing like it.

13 dan.whalen { 03.06.10 at 7:05 pm }

Daniel – good post & video. It was NOT too much, the humor helps you make your points. Keep doing the videos with Khara, just remember that she’s the comedian and your the straight-man.

14 sauerkraut { 03.18.10 at 7:15 pm }

I’ve been reading your site since the first “myth” video popped up, so only a little while, but I really enjoy your writing style and the videos are really well done. Of all the tech blogs I read I look forward to your updates the most. Your articles are clear, concise, well-researched and without any of the hyperbole that plagues other tech journalists.

As far as the video with KaraChara goes, I enjoyed it but it seemed a little unrehearsed and clumsy. You two have great chemistry and your dry delivery really sets up a lot of comedic possibilities, but the entire video was one long “joke” without the rise and fall we normally associate with comedy performances. Enjoyed it overall, but think it would work better comedy-wise if it were a little shorter, Khara’s performances were a little more understated and you turned up the “dry” a little bit.

Fantastic site, thanks for all the great reports. Looking forward to your updates.

15 gslusher { 04.23.10 at 12:41 pm }

The video is great! I don’t know how you kept that deadpan expression the entire time.

As for comments to the effect that the video is “amateurish,” guess what, folks? Dan *IS* an “amateur” at video. So? It was fun for us and surely for Dan & Khara.

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