Anticipating Mac OS X 10.7 Lion
October 19th, 2010
Daniel Eran Dilger
As Apple prepares to release its current quarterly earnings, a second announcement this week will present the company’s future related to the Mac platform. Here’s what’s likely to be unveiled.
The company has been devoting much of its efforts toward iOS since its release, and it’s no wonder why. Mac sales are (and have been) growing about as fast as they possibly can, and there is no new competition buffeting the shores of PC Island; Apple’s Mac platform is the only storm delivering hurricane devastation to the status quo of desktops and laptops.
On the other hand, Apple’s four-pronged iOS platform has vast potential to grow far faster, inhale greater revenues and consume untouched expanses of market share among phones, tablets and music players. Apple’s hot iron is iOS, and the company is striking hard with it.
It’s hard to even fathom how Apple managed to take its maturing iPod position (remember when everyone was crowing about the inevitability of Apple losing its iPod dominance to the Zune and a variety of other devices?) and leverage it to establish the iPhone, then the premium-priced iPod touch?
And more recently the iOS has birthed iPad, which has created its own market category that not only trampled the prospects for netbooks and owned the entire market segment for “tablets,” but has also sucked the air from the sales of notebook PCs (particularly notable in enterprise environments, where Apple hasn’t even been marketing it; so much for Paul Thurrott’s “Apple is only successful because of excessive, tricky marketing that blinds consumers from following Microsoft” theory).
The fourth piece of the puzzle is a re-imagined Apple TV that integrates with other iOS devices via AirPlay, and will undoubtedly eventually add support for apps once the installed base hits a critical mass Apple can take to its developers.
Why should Apple be devoting its efforts to revamp Mac OS X when the iOS is what has driven sales and revenue over the past three years? Well, 2010 is drawing to a close, and Apple has already launched two of the largest consumer electronics products ever: iPhone 4 and iPad. How does one perform another encore without distracting away from those two products?
Shift focus back to the Mac
Apple clearly framed the coming announcement to highlight the next version of Mac OS X, not just new hardware running the same old Snow Leopard release.
Remember when the wags all predicted that Macs would shift toward using Apple’s mobile iOS? That was silly, but not as silly as their subsequent howling that the iPad would run iOS and wouldn’t run Mac OS X. Come on guys, can’t be upset either way; pick a position that isn’t ridiculous and then don’t contradict it with and equally absurd position in the same breath.
What the entire “iOS vs Mac OS X” hyperventilation of invented dramatic controversy fails to grasp is that Apple’s mobile iOS really is Mac OS X, albeit with a modified Cocoa development platform and device-appropriate user interface.
Contrast that with Microsoft, which has a desktop OS and a mobile OS that only share a name in common; the kernel design is completely different, and all they have in common is portions of their development environment, and sadly, UI elements that shouldn’t be common at all across such different devices.
Or think of how radically non-complementary Nokia’s Symbian, embedded, and Linux platforms are. Or consider the lack of similarity between Google’s Chrome OS and Android; both use a Linux kernel, but Android’s native Java-based development platform has no similarity in either concept or practice with Chrome OS’ use of modified web standards as its platform.
Sharing is caring
Mac OS X and iOS share lots of technologies, and much of the advancements being made to the iOS have found their way back to Mac OS X. Two obvious examples have been the iPhone’s animated user interface toolkit that subsequently appeared in Mac OS X 10.5 as Core Animation, and the revamped media playback software developed for iPhone that found its way to the Mac under the name QuickTime X.
In Mac OS X Lion, expect further advances in sharing, including a compatibility bump to iChat AV that enables Macs to video chat with iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4 via FaceTime. It’s also likely Apple will more fully integrate AirPlay and AirPrint, establishing both as standards for streaming media and documents wirelessly.
Enhancements to graphics and gaming technologies, ranging from OpenGL to OpenCL to OpenAL have already begun flowing back and forth between the iOS and Mac OS X buckets.
Core bundled apps in Mac OS X are likely to get a makeover imitating the look of their MobileMe and iPad cousins. Mail, Calendar, and Address Book could all use an update that tightens up and standardizes their appearance.
iOS Apps on the Mac desktop
What about bringing iOS apps to the Mac desktop, perhaps as a replacement for Dashboard as some have suggested? Well one problem is that, while Cocoa Touch apps would be nice to pull up, allowing their execution on the unsecured Mac platform (there’s no secured kernel in place) would likely make it too easy to pilfer iTunes apps, eroding the business model that has worked so well to attract developers and provide a huge catalog of options for users.
However, Apple is working on building new security into the Mac OS X kernel, limiting what apps can do (such as rejecting incoming connections on a per-app basis using Snow Leopard’s new application-level firewall) and limiting what accounts on the system can execute (via Access Control Lists). This work to secure Mac OS X system depends upon signing apps so that the kernel knows they haven’t been modified or replaced by a rogue process (such as a virus), which could subsequently commandeer an app to send out spam instead of doing whatever it was originally granted access permissions to do.
So, while Apple is unlikely in the near term to deliver a “Mac App Store” in the model of the iPhone and iPad app stores, things are working in that direction. Android has clearly proven beyond a doubt that “freedom” to install your own apps comes at the expense of having real commercial development, and brings with it lots of malware and junk apps (most Android apps are actually a ringtone or wallpaper, rather than something you might actually want to install).
There is some chance that Apple could deliver an iOS emulator environment that allowed Mac users to run iOS apps, possibly using the same technology Intel delivered in hopes of shoehorning iOS apps to run on Intel-based hardware. I still like my idea of replacing the trackpad with an embedded iPod touch, so you could perform limited touch-based functions at your fingertips and then push the result (say a calculated amount, or a contact field, or a bookmark, or a selected media) to the Mac desktop.
Even if iOS apps never make their way onto the Mac desktop, there’s a strong case for Apple to deliver the same business model to support the creation of extensions such as System Preferences panes. The reason you don’t see many of these from third parties is because there’s no marketplace. Add a secure installation and update system similar to the App Store, and developers would create all sorts of innovative apps for cheap.
Leave things “free and open” and you get the same level of excitement as you observed for Dashboard widgets, Safari extensions, Automator Actions and Android apps. Which is to say, rather hollow enthusiasm that never really results in much after the honeymoon passes and developers realize they can’t pay the rent with fan mail. So much potential wasted because the technology isn’t backed up with a viable business model. Mac OS X needs a store for applets, panels, web extensions, actions, email bundles, and Quartz Compositions, just to name a few. No revenue = no enthusiasm.
A new look
I like to anticipate what Apple’s user interface team is going to do by looking at iTunes and Pro Apps. That’s because those apps are where Apple is making its money, and so they’re a harbinger of things to come as the focus of the company’s attention. Unfortunately, Mac OS X hasn’t very aggressively advanced in its UI for some time, in part because most of the work recently has been devoted to iOS products, and in part because Apple can’t get too crazy with the Mac desktop without riling the faithful.
After some very minor enhancements to the menu bar and dock, Mac users were flipping inside out about how the translucency didn’t appeal to them and so on. Ironically, Microsoft has taken bolder steps with Windows Vista/7, even if those bold steps are 80% distractingly ornamental and 20% a copy of Mac OS X.
Things may change with Lion because, firstly, iOS is largely finished as a UI, from the iPhone to iPad. There’s room for growth, but the look is set up as a foundation and widely accepted by third party developers. That means Apple has the resources to focus on Mac OS X again.
Secondly, Mac OS X is in need of an overhaul. Sure, things are set and accepted, but the Mac desktop is growing old in the tooth and there’s too much inconsistency. Apple’s been working to get rid of Brushed Metal and tone down Aqua for the last decade, and the Unified look is striving toward a sense of consistency, but there’s a lot still being dragged ahead from the 80s.
For example, those day-glow blue scroll bars. The iOS shows you don’t need to have a scroll bar visible all the time, eating up precious pixels to indicate where you are within a document. That’s especially the case when you can only scroll down an inch anyway. Why not bring in those disappearing, reappearing scroll indicators from the iPhone?
And how about those candy colored Close/Zoom/Minimize buttons; maybe they can be packed into a stacked configuration like iTunes, or even replaced with a better, more obvious, less color-bound control that makes more sense when working with windows. And please let me expand my windows from any corner, thanks. I’m not new to a windowing environment. NeXT had this twenty years ago, remember Mr Jobs?
Other stuff that’s been obviously missing for some time now: the ability to work with multiple clipboards at once. LipService for voice emails. And how about better integration of voice synthesis and voice recognition, combined with email and voice mailboxes, so you can listen to your text emails or send dictated emails from your phone?
Another thing that needs to be fixed is the system’s notifications and active application model. When I plug in my iPhone, it doesn’t mean I want iTunes and iPhoto to slowly take over the system just to do some background syncing task that shouldn’t need my intervention anyway. Just as with the iOS, Mac OS X on the desktop needs a way to passively notify the user of events they can choose to take action on as they desire. The bouncing Dock icon and the involuntary switching of the foreground app are not real acceptable alternatives.
I’d also expect Apple to bring its PNS (Push Notification Services) system to the Mac desktop, allowing developers to notify users of breaking news, software updates, incoming messages, and other events just like the iOS, but with a passive, logging event center to manage these types of things. Your Mac could tap into the same services as your iPhone, so you don’t miss a beat.
There used to be grief from developers that Apple’s UI guidelines were too strict and didn’t allow developers to go as hog wild as they wanted to. Well after decades of awful looking Windows apps, and witnessing today’s terrible Android look and feel, it seems to have been accepted that Apple does a pretty good job of outlining how apps on the iOS should look. Apple also has a standardized model for Mac apps in the model of iWorks apps, iLife apps, and Pro Apps, each of which are quite different but all useful. I think Apple needs to push a common starting point harder.
Part of this means killing off Carbon as a way to shove code from the 80s into today’s markets. Adobe and Microsoft have been dragging their hands over the last decade to avoid using the modern Cocoa, but have recently seen the light, with Adobe launching the very competitive Lightroom and Microsoft unveiling a new Cocoa build of Outlook for Mac that drops the archaic junk still visible in the latest Carbon-based Word and Excel.
Apple is pushing Cocoa as the exclusive way to author 64-bit apps, which is something similar to the way that it has made Cocoa Touch the exclusive way to create native apps for iOS devices. This is a change from the early days of Mac OS X, where Apple was trying to accommodate the classic Mac OS dinosaurs with Carbon and interest corporate users with Java compatibility. Apple wants one platform to work on and perfect, and the more it can focus on Cocoa exclusively, the better Cocoa will become.
Less sexy, more sizzle
Ten Big New Features in Mac OS X Snow Leopard
All of those features can be enhanced and embellished. We’ll also see advancements to the modern QuickTime X, including better editing and export features. I’d sure like to see Apple take the half-assed Image Capture and turn it into a great app for network scanning and printing. It’s so tantalizingly close to being great. The same goes for plenty of the other bundled apps.
Perhaps what Mac OS X really needs is a storefront for apps in general, so Apple can offer add on apps for a buck or two, just as it does on the iOS with Remote, Keynote Remote, Page/Numbers/Keynote, iDisk, Gallery and so on.
I know I’d much rather have a paid copy of a $4 Preview.app that delivered great PDF features and simple photo editing than a free bundled app that sort of acted as an 80% placeholder. I’d pay for Safari if it could advance faster. I think most people would pay for packages of apps that were a notch above the free bundled versions.
And the wild success of the iOS app store suggests I’m right.
What are you anticipating?