Essays on Technology and Culture

The Coming iOS and Mac Unification

So, the chip in the new iPhone is faster than any MacBook Air. The pure silicon power in the A10 is fueling another round of speculation about whether iOS will come to the desktop. It was something floated as an idea here and there for the past few years, but it’s faded into the background as iOS gains more Mac features, and macOS gains more iOS features. Personally, I don’t think iOS will come to the Mac any time soon. What I think will happen is something a bit more radical: a new version of macOS built with the underpinnings of iOS instead.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. If you recall the original iPhone announcement, Steve Jobs didn’t say the iPhone ran iPhone OS, he said it ran OS X. It’s not exactly OS X, but iOS and macOS have the same technology at the core. iOS also serves as the underpinnings of Apple’s other two operating systems: watchOS and tvOS. Thinking about iOS this way, you can see the development of iOS as stripped-down, mobile and touch optimized version of macOS. In the past decade, it’s been built back up with modern, touch and mobile-focused computing as its focus.

Every version of iOS since the initial release has added new features and extensibility of the type we take for granted in modern desktop OSes. Yes, iOS isn’t at the point where has feature parity with the Mac on an OS level by any measure. It’s not unreasonable to assume that with a few more years of development time that iOS will reach parity with modern macOS. One example of this future is the upcoming Apple File System which is planned to run on all Apple devices. That’s some serious unification.

If the pattern holds, I expect to see a new version of macOS built on the iOS code base, optimizing for desktop features, and possibly even running on ARM chips. There’s almost certainly an ARM version of macOS as know it today running on ARM, but if Apple can jettison the same legacy crap they let go for iOS on the Mac, I don’t see why they wouldn’t. How many of the issues we deal with in on the Mac (not related to outdated hardware) are from fifteen years of accumulated cruft? Or longer, if you count the baggage from the NeXTSTEP days.

None of this is going to happen for a while. We’re only a decade out from the last processor transition in Macintosh hardware. While the Intel transition was pretty seamless, a transition to ARM Macs will bring one major hassle: the loss of Windows compatibility. Perhaps if an A15X chip of some sort is powerful enough to do real-time CPU emulation without a huge speed crunch, it won’t be an issue. Or, maybe, Windows for ARM will become a thing again. Either way, it’ll be a hell of a transition. Apple’s done it twice before, though. I’m excited to see what a desktop OS built on iOS would work like, even if it still looks like macOS. And I’d put safe money down that it will.