Apple gearing up for major adjustments to the Mac

Recent developments suggest that the Mac OS may see some substantial changes in the next few years.

Topher Kessler MacFixIt Editor
Topher, an avid Mac user for the past 15 years, has been a contributing author to MacFixIt since the spring of 2008. One of his passions is troubleshooting Mac problems and making the best use of Macs and Apple hardware at home and in the workplace.
Topher Kessler
4 min read

When Apple abandoned its long-standing use of PowerPC chips in favor of those from Intel, Steve Jobs said, "It's been 10 years since our transition to the PowerPC, and we think Intel's technology will help us create the best personal computers for the next 10 years." Eight years have now passed since that moment, and recent developments suggest that Apple may abide by this statement and move to a new architecture within a few years. But not only is Apple looking to new hardware, it is also preparing plans for its operating systems.

Bloomberg is reporting that Bob Mansfield, Apple's recently announced VP of Technologies, has been exploring new chip options in the wake of "ambitious plans for the future" by Apple's semiconductor teams. Apple's A5 and A6 processors have been making leaps and bounds in terms of capability, and while the architecture still has a ways to go, future designs may be advanced enough to take over the functions and features required for Mac desktop computing.

Launchpad in OS X
The LaunchPad in OS X mimics the iOS approach to application access, moving the two operating systems a touch closer in function. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

While perhaps a logical approach for Apple to take, this change would undoubtedly mean that Mac users would be facing some adjustments in the next few years. For one, a change in hardware will cause a shift in which programs will run in OS X. Those that require core technologies in Intel hardware would not work anymore, including the versatility provided by running Windows either optimally in Boot Camp or in parallel using Virtual Machine software. Additionally, as with the transition from PowerPC, existing programs would need to at least be recompiled to work on the new hardware. Apple's push for developers to adopt its XCode and Cocoa programming environments should make this easier to do, but as was seen with AppleWorks, Quicken, and many others, there will undoubtedly be some programs that will be left behind.

Overall a hardware change should be relatively seamless for Mac users, but this is not the only development that Apple has in the pipeline. Recently the company adjusted some of its top brass, with iOS software Vice President Scott Forstall leaving and Bob Mansfeld taking on the VP of Technologies position to tackle new directions for the future of both the Mac OS and iOS. Bloomberg reports that in addition to future hardware, Mansfeld is pursuing "melding iOS with the Mac OS to create a more uniform experience for all Apple devices," which, beyond hardware changes, suggests that more-radical adjustments to the Mac OS are on their way.

In recent builds of OS X, Apple has implemented a number of iOS-like features, including Notification Center, the iOS document manager with iCloud, Launchpad, the App Store, and peripheral iOS-like applications such as Calendar and Notes. Though these have been more like minor amendments to the OS, they may just be the tip of the iceberg for changes to come.

iOS Simulator in OS X
The iOS Simulator application included with XCode allows iOS applications to run in OS X for developers, but could serve as a layer in OS X to run apps consumers. Screenshot by Topher Kessler/CNET

Apple has always been fond of the simplicity of point-and-click, so additional changes may come that could bring a more simplified iOS-like interface to the Mac OS. The primary difference between the Mac OS and iOS interfaces are the use of the keyboard and mouse vs. touch, a window manager that allows multiple programs to run in parallel on the same display, and the Finder that allows direct access to the file-system structure. Perhaps blending these platforms would mean an approach similar to Microsoft's with Windows 8, with a simplified overlay that presents iOS features for use, under which more Mac OS features could be accessed if needed.

For development purposes, Apple already includes an iOS emulator with Xcode, and such technologies could, for starters, allow an iOS layer in OS X that would allow apps to run, but only time will tell what Apple has up its sleeve and how such a blend might take place.

Keep in mind that while the implementation of more iOS features in the Mac will likely happen and be part of a blending effort, the melding of the two operating systems does also go in the reverse direction, so there may be a fair number of Mac OS features that could find their way into a combined OS environment. For one, Apple's document management system in iOS is quite limited, and having a more Finder-like approach to the file system may be a benefit to iOS users. Additionally, having access to more than one application onscreen at the same time is a necessity for many users.

While the specifics of what Apple will do with its operating systems are unknown, it's almost inevitable that changes are coming. The classic desktop operating system is competing with mobile options that are increasingly offering many similar abilities, and maintaining the two platforms independently as their functions and uses converge is almost silly.