Will Apple's vision upset Unity cart?

How fares Unity in Apple's non-converging vision?

In Apple's much-publicized second-quarter earnings call Tuesday, CEO Tim Cook's comments on platform convergence caught a lot of people's attention and could also call Canonical's strategy of one operating system for all platforms into question.

Cook's remarks were specifically aimed at Windows 8, which Anthony Sacconaghi, an analyst from Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., LLC mentioned in his question to Cook on the earnings call:

"There seems to be a lot of work, particularly on PC-based platforms, towards trying to combine the PC and tablet experience going forward in part because Windows 8 will be able to--is a touch-based operating system as well. Can you comment about why you don't believe the PC or the Ultrabook and tablet markets or your MacBook Air and tablet markets won't converge?"

Sacconaghi's question gave Cook a beautiful opening for this rather sound-bite-worthy statement:

"I think, Tony, anything can be forced to converge. But the problem is that products are about trade-offs, and you begin to make trade-offs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn't please anyone. You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user."

After hearing Cook's remarks, I was immediately struck by what such a anti-convergence stance might mean for the one Linux company that's pretty much pedal to the metal about platform convergence: Canonical.

One of the big selling points about the Unity interface that Ubuntu sports is the capability of the interface to look good on the desktop and just about any other platform on which it runs. Such a goal is not easy to achieve, and Cook's statements this week would seem to cast serious doubts on whether Canonical can even pull this off.

But I believe that Unity can pull off the kind of convergence that Cook scoffs at.

Now, I know that I will be the odd one to actually defend Unity, since historically Unity has not been my cup of tea. But the obstacles that Cook describes are not general: they apply very much to Windows 8 (and OS X), but not necessarily to Unity.

When Cook is criticizing the notion of slamming a Windows interface into desktop and tablet platforms, he's talking about taking a very well-known and legacy interface and trying to shoehorn it into something for which it was not originally designed.

The success of Apple's own iOS seems to be Cook's justification for this stance: you don't see any menus or window controls in iOS, after all. (There's some menu action in Android, it's pretty minimal, so you could say Android backs up Cook's ideas, too.)

I would argue that Cook is not just smacking Windows 8 around: he's also putting the brakes on any speculation that iOS and OS X are coming together, even though any user of OS X Lion will have surely told you otherwise.

So it's game over for Unity, right?

Actually, no: in fact, if the industry follows Cook's lead, this no-convergence stance could represent a huge opening for Canonical, if it can muster the resources and savvy to take the shot and pull this off.

One of the characteristics of Unity that people (including me) don't like is the near-complete break from a "traditional" desktop interface. Like it or not, though, the fact that the Unity developers went off in this direction, even at the expense of their relationship with the upstream GNOME developers, may be the one thing that will give Unity the chance to achieve a real unity.

Cook is right: you can't jam a toaster and refrigerator together. But you can in theory build something completely new that would circumvent the need to have separate devices. Science fiction fans would recognize this as replication technology from Star Trek: you don't need to heat or cool food if the consumables are created in-place.

Before you chastise me for completely geeking out, remember this is an analogy. Creating a unified computer interface is much less of a technical challenge than coming up with a fictional replicator. And that's all Canonical is doing: it's not trying to develop a unified device, it's trying to come up with an interface that would work on such a device once it's invented.

Cook can't envision a device that would take the place of laptops and tablets together, but that does not mean that such a device is impossible to create. But even if it is, Canonical's approach to a single interface for multiple devices may be the next best thing.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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