In the hours leading up to Apple's "Back to the Mac" event Wednesday at 10AM PST, it's an interesting time to reflect on the status of the Mac operating system and its role in the Apple ecosystem. In Peter Bright's "21st century guide to platform trolling", his biggest complaint about Apple is that the company no longer cares about its flagship operating system, Mac OS X. This opinion is shared by more than a few, so is there any truth to it?
Has Apple become a gadget factory?
The wild success of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad has led many to speculate that Apple is no longer a computer company. Indeed, it certainly was a boost to this idea when Apple dropped the "Computer" from its name along with the introduction of the iPhone, back in early 2007. And while it's true that its "gadgets" bring in more revenue for the company than its Mac offerings, the Mac has also seen success of its own, hitting more than 10 percent US sales marketshare for the first time in many years. Even though it's been a while since any "revolutionary" upgrades were released for any of the products in the Mac line, the company nonetheless diligently continues updating its machines year after year. The success of its notebooks, in particular, should alleviate any fears that the company doesn't care about its computer line.
Apple never really was a "computer company"
From the mid-80's to the early 21st century, the Apple brand became so synonymous with computers that it's easy to forget the company does much more. Apple's original successes were indeed computers: the Apple I and the wildly successful Apple II. But these machines were more about making computers available to everyone, rather than making computers better for everyone. Of course, the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984 changed the company and made the Mac, with its graphical user interface, Apple's flagship product for years to come. Years in which Apple expanded into nearly every market it could get its hands on: printers, digital cameras, PDAs, a very early "netbook", monitors, a gaming console, and more. It was only after Steve Jobs retook the company in 1997 that focus shifted entirely back to the Mac. Even this was short-lived, as the iPod was introduced not long after in 2001. Yes, the Mac has always been a major focus of the company, but it almost always has its other projects as well. Anybody remember eWorld?
It's what's on the inside that counts
When Apple decided to use NEXTStep as the core of its next-generation operating system, Mac OS X, it was setting itself up to be able to develop a platform suitable for any architecture, on any device. The most obvious example is the switch to Intel processors from PowerPC in 2006, but let's not forget that OS X underwent a second hardware transition in 2007: the move from PPC+x86 to ARM as well. Apple definitely loves the freedom to run its core OS on these ARM-based designs, as seen in its now entirely-A4 -powered lineup fof iPod touch, iPhone, iPad, and the new AppleTV. But this flexibility goes both ways: not only can Apple adapt its Mac technologies for its new portable devices, but it can also adapt its new portable technologies for Mac devices. It's not as if the work being done on improving iOS goes wasted on the Mac side of things. The most prominent example is Core Animation, which started off as an iPhone feature and made its way into Leopard. Look for this trend to continue, especially as iOS comes into its own. Engineers at Apple aren't really working on either iOS or Mac OS X…they're working on OS X, with a focus on one UI or the other.
iOS is immature; it needs more attention
With iOS 4, Apple's decision to give the operating system its own identifiable name really shows how the company is interested in making it a fully-fledged OS in its own right. For that to happen, a lot of work needs to be done. Remember that it took four revisions for the software to get any kind of multitasking for third-party apps. iOS devices are an entirely new sandbox to play in, and Apple is taking its time making sure that it builds everything in a way that makes sense for the sandbox, not just porting everything over from the Mac. As a clean slate, it's certainly more enticing to Apple engineers to flesh out a new paradigm of computing then try and add new features to a fully modern, mature Mac OS X. The focus of Snow Leopard shows exactly this: implementing better core technologies rather than add lots of bells and whistles to an operating system that already does almost all of what people need it to do.
Mac OS X 10.7: King of the jungle?
With Apple's invitations leaving little doubt that its next OS will be named "Lion" and that it will be the highlight of its media event tomorrow, what will Apple choose to improve? While it certainly proved with Snow Leopard that it doesn't need lots of whiz-bang to sell an operating system, its much lower price didn't hurt things either. And with its assertion that the under-the-hood tinkering of 10.6 was to set itself up for incredible new features to come, the "Lion" moniker does suggest that this revision will be the pinnacle of OS X engineering. Not that it will stop producing operating systems, but a larger shift may be on the horizon. Certainly it would seem like time to implement all of the things promised in various versions of OS X but never delivered: a new filesystem (ZFS or Apple's own design), a "better" Finder, a fully-consistent UI, and resolution independence. The latter in particular could definitely help with the iOS side of things as well. All of these are major engineering challenges, not small checkboxes on a feature list. But with an operating system that, let's face is, is already good enough for most of the people that use it, it may be time for Apple to bring out the big guns for its biggest cat yet.