These days, it's easy to take Mac OS X for granted. Sure, we all love our Macs and the applications we use. But what has the operating system done for us lately? Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) was released a year and a half ago, but most of its changes were under the hood. The last release to include significant user interface enhancements was Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard), which is now more than three years old.
If Mac OS X has seemed neglected lately, it probably has a lot to do with iOS hogging all of Apple's attention. Since Leopard's release, iOS has gone through four major revisions, each bringing important new features to iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches.
At last October's "Back to the Mac" press event, Apple finally announced Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion), due to ship in summer 2011. Only a few new features were demonstrated, and then only briefly, so it's hard to say whether Lion will be another bargain-priced release like the $29 Snow Leopard, or a feature-packed $129 blockbuster like Leopard. But the details we did get make some things very clear.
For the next iteration of Mac OS X, Apple has taken inspiration from the defining characteristic of iOS: simplicity. Just as the Mac was originally a friendlier alternative to command-line operating systems, iOS today stands in stark contrast to Mac OS X and other powerful, but still relatively complex, desktop operating systems. Apple plans to use what it has learned from iOS to make Mac OS X more approachable and even easier to use.
The trouble with apps
Let's start with the most basic operating system task: installing and running applications. Experienced Mac users may take this process for granted, but try explaining it to a novice. The byzantine system of compressed files, disk images, and installer applications can be cumbersome even for expert Mac users.
You download an application. Where does it go? Once you find it, is that an installer or the app itself? Once it's installed, do you drag it to the Dock or run it from where it is? And what do you do with the disk image after that?
Uninstalling an app is even worse. Mac OS X offers no uniform way to do it. Sometimes, dragging the application's icon (assuming you can find it) to the trash is sufficient. But any application that uses a multistep installer probably also needs an uninstaller to really remove it.
Compare all of this to iOS, in which installing any app is as easy as tapping one button. Uninstalling an app is just as simple, and works the same for all apps. This ease of installation (along with low pricing) is why iOS users are so much more willing to purchase and install software. People who are daunted by the prospect of installing Mac applications will happily tap their way to screenfuls of apps on their iPhones and iPads.
Apple has listened to that feedback. The forthcoming Mac App Store will bring the iOS app experience to the Mac: one-click purchase-and-install, explicit visual feedback on download progress, and a clear indication of where the application will live once it's downloaded. At the October event, Apple didn't demonstrate a new process for uninstalling. But it's a good bet that it, too, will be modeled on iOS.
Finding without the Finder
Mac OS X's Dock went a long way toward simplifying the experience of launching applications on the Mac. Things take a turn for the worse once the user has to move beyond the Dock. The Finder is a big step up in complexity from the Dock's simple row of icons. There's also the shotgun approach offered by Spotlight, but once the user starts typing search queries, the battle for simplicity has already been lost.
iOS has taken the Dock's approach a step further. Instead of just a single line of the most frequently used applications, iOS arrays all of its apps in a series of icon grids. Yes, there's still a search function as a last resort, but there is nothing like the Finder in iOS.
Apple now appears to be questioning whether there should even be a Finder in Mac OS X. Lion's Launchpad feature brings iOS's app icon grid to the Mac, usurping the Finder's role as the fallback tool for finding and launching applications that are not in the Dock. With Mac applications increasingly using a "library" metaphor, as pioneered by iTunes and iPhoto, the need to interact directly with files by accessing the file system is slowly disappearing.
Toward the iOS ideal
The OS also influences the design of the applications themselves, through the development tools and frameworks it offers and the example set by the OS's bundled applications. Apple's new directive for Mac OS X applications is that they should be more like iOS apps.
For example: iOS apps cover the entire screen. That makes sense, given the small screens of handheld devices. But it also provides a measure of focus that customers seem to like. Mac developers are now being encouraged to add full-screen modes to their applications; Apple has already done so itself in apps such as iPhoto. Future versions of Mac OS X will provide a way to switch easily between applications without leaving full-screen mode, retaining both the Mac's multitasking advantages and iOS's clarity of focus.
Due to the memory constraints of handheld devices, iOS only recently gained the ability to run multiple applications at once. Even so, iOS applications must still be ready to be evicted from memory at any time, and are expected to automatically restore themselves to their previous state when launched. This also means that there's no explicit Save operation in iOS applications; work is saved automatically.
Though not subject to the same hardware limitations, Mac OS X applications should behave the same way, Apple has decided. Future versions of Mac OS X will likely include native support for automatically saving and restoring an application's state. It's possible that the Dock will no longer provide any visual indication that an application is running: If application state is never lost, the distinction between running and not running no longer really matters.
Eyes on the prize
There are many more traditional areas where Mac OS X will continue to develop: the transition to 64-bit will be completed, support for flash storage will improve (perhaps with the help of a new, more modern file system), and 3D performance could get some much-needed attention.
But these efforts are dwarfed by the bold new course Apple has charted for Mac OS X. From its experience with iOS, Apple believes it has discovered--or perhaps rediscovered--the secret to selling consumer technology products: simplicity. This doesn't mean that the Mac we know and love will disappear. Rather, by stealing the most successful ideas from iOS, the Mac OS of tomorrow could slowly shed its legacy constraints while still remaining true to the power, utility, and spirit that has always defined the Mac.
John Siracusa, a Mac user since 1984, is a Web developer and freelance writer.
This story, "Mac OS X: What does the future hold?" was originally published by Macworld.