Apple’s other Operating System

John Siracusa
10 June, 2010
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Until a few months ago, I fully expected Apple to announce Mac OS X 10.7 at this week’s Worldwide Developers Conference. But when I saw that there was no Mac-specific track on the conference schedule and that Mac apps would be excluded from the annual Apple Design Awards, I got the message: iPhone OS (now called iOS) and the products it powers (the iPhone, the iPod touch and the iPad) are the stars of Apple’s software show. Mac OS X, last updated a year ago, now plays second fiddle.

Mac OS X’s last major release, Snow Leopard, included internal changes, bug fixes, and performance improvements, but very few new features that users could see. Could it be that Apple thinks there’s just nothing left to add to Mac OS X? I sure hope not, because I have plenty of ideas. Here are just two of them, one concrete and the other more fanciful.

A modern file system

Mac OS X’s file system, HFS+, is more than 12 years old. It is itself an extension of the HFS file system, which is almost 25 years old. Technology has come a long way since 1985.

Modern file systems include features like snapshots (saving the state of an entire disk), block-level incremental backups (identifying and copying only the data that has changed) and data deduplication (storing only one copy of a chunk of data that may appear in many different files). File systems created this century are also much more amenable to concurrent access than HFS+; the latter’s single, centralised Catalog File data structure can be updated by only one process at a time.

But all of this is esoteric technobabble next to HFS+’s most egregious failing: its lack of reliability. In my 26 years of Mac use, the most likely cause of data loss has been file-system corruption. I can accept it when a hard disk fails; mechanical devices wear out. Software has no such excuse. A new file system would be a practical and long- overdue addition to Mac OS X.

A touchscreen Mac

My second idea lies at the opposite end of the practicality spectrum. Apple could start down the long road toward the convergence of its two major software platforms by adding touch-based features to its desktop operating system.

Don’t get me wrong: the Mac user interface is not designed for touch. Standard controls like scrollbars, buttons, and checkboxes are too small to be manipulated with an adult-size finger. Some common operations – such as hovering a cursor over an interface element without clicking it – can’t be done with touch alone. On the hardware side, poking at the vertical screen surface of a touch-sensitive iMac would quickly produce arm fatigue.

So what kind of touch integration would make sense? The iPad shows that touch-based applications with desktop-level ambitions are certainly possible, if the hardware is willing. Mac OS X could meet the iPad halfway with a little help from Mac hardware.

Imagine a new laptop about the size of a MacBook Air, but with a keyboard that can fold back on itself, leaving just a slim, touch-sensitive screen visible. Further imagine that this laptop ships with a version of Mac OS X that includes the ability to purchase, download, and run any iPhone OS application written for the iPad.

Now you’ve got the best of both worlds: a light, fully capable Mac laptop when you need all the power it provides, and a slightly bulky (but screamingly fast) iPad when you don’t.

This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Applications written for iOS already run natively in Mac OS X inside the iPhone and iPad simulators that are part of Apple’s developer tools.

Developers compile their iOS applications for Intel CPUs during testing and then recompile them for ARM CPUs (used in the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch) before uploading them to a handheld device or the App Store. An application compiled to contain both ARM and Intel code could run on iOS devices and Macs.

I admit that – feasible or not – a hybrid Mac/iPad does seem somewhat schizophrenic, and a bit out of character for Apple. But then, coming up with new features for Mac OS X is Apple’s job, not mine. And it’s precisely the features that no one was asking for – the ideas that no one had thought of – that have made the Mac what it is today.

I’m anxious to see what Apple has in store for us in 10.7, whenever the company gets around to releasing it. Mac OS X is far from finished, in any sense of the word.

John Siracusa is a software developer and freelance technology writer.

One Comment

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  1. sgns says:

    Thanks. I think OS X is not at all forgotten. Apple after all does not tell the world what it’s up to. Since Microsoft also finally managed to release an OS, Apple probably made the wise decision to not try to rush something revolutionary and “do a Vista” to follow a ’7.

    As you mention, replacing HFS+ and capitalizing on the new candy in a stable way, and evolving the UI paradigm sounds like precisely the kind of step length a company like Apple would be aiming at.

    The longer time to the next release at least gives developers a moment implement GCD and OpenCL before they get to jump into the next new pool. Also, where’s the full-fledged Quicktime X – and what about iTunes/Media?

    Funny how easy it is to obsess over something which one only indirectly has any control over (the next OS X/hardware). Goes to show how central this stuff still is made in our lives.

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