Apple's other operating system

iOS 4 is now the big cheese, not Mac OS X

Until a few months ago, I fully expected Apple to announce Mac OS X 10.7 at this year's Worldwide Developer 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 loud and clear: iOS and the products it powers--the iPhone, iPod touch, and now the iPad--are now the stars of Apple's software show. Mac OS X, last updated a year ago, now plays second fiddle.

OS X's last major release, Snow Leopard, included internal changes, bug fixes, and performance improvements, but very few new features that were visible to users. 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 twelve years old, and is itself an extension of the HFS file system, which is almost twenty-five years old. Technology has come a long way since 1985.

Modern file systems include features like snapshots (instantly saving the state of an entire disk), block-level incremental backups (efficiently identifying and copying only the data that has changed since some point in the past), and data deduplication (storing only a single 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+, which tracks files using a single, centralized Catalog File data structure that can only be updated by one process at a time.

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

A Touchscreen Mac

My second idea lies at the far opposite end of the practicality spectrum. With the next release of Mac OS X, Apple could start down the long road towards the convergence of its two major software platforms by adding touch-based features to its desktop operating system.

Unfortunately, the Mac user interface is not designed for touch. Standard Mac OS X controls like scrollbars, buttons, and checkboxes are far too small to be comfortably manipulated with an adult-size finger. Worse, some common operations--such as hovering a cursor over an interface element without actually clicking it--can't be done at all using touch alone. On the hardware side, poking at the vertical screen surface of, say, a future touch-sensitive iMac would quickly produce arm fatigue.

Given all of this, what kind of touch integration actually 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 iOS 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, 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--technically feasible or not--a hybrid Mac/iPad would seem 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 ideas that no one is asking for--that no one's even thought of yet--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. Because Mac OS X is far from finished, in any sense of the word.

John Siracusa is a software developer and freelance technology writer.

This story, "Apple's other operating system" was originally published by MacCentral.

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