TUAW redux: The future of iPhone OS and Mac OS

One of the big topics of discussion yesterday in our TUAW back channel was this post from the New York Times Bits blog. In "Why can't PCs work more like iPhones," Bilton pointed out that the iPhone has given Apple a chance to build a new OS from the ground up.

This is a familiar viewpoint to us here on TUAW. Last year, I asked whether the future of the Mac OS would turn out to be the iPhone. In my write-up, I pointed out that the iPhone OS was built from scratch to work with Objective C 2.0 with its properties and other modern language features. Its API, far from being cobbled together, showed ever increasing design maturity without the weight of heavy backwards compatibility concerns. I concluded that Apple might take a lesson from the iPhone OS and consider offering a ground up redesign for Mac OS X, at least in terms of core OS principles.

In his post, Bilton considers how Mac OS X might integrate iPhone OS features into its user experience, suggesting a possible Front Row-like overlay layer, running an iPhone OS interface. The goal would be to craft iPhone-style GUI simplicity onto the desktop experience, so that users could move seamlessly between their mobile and desktop worlds.

But as much as we believe that Apple is heading cautiously in the direction that Bilton suggests, the TUAW consensus is that a desktop OS needs far more structure and, at the same time, flexibility than what the iPhone OS offers.

Our own Brett Terpstra points out that the current interface standards of the iPhone won't translate easily to desktop use. Apple's accommodations for the needs and limitations of mobile users with limited time and physical device space drive a design standard that doesn't hold up for day to day work at the desktop, where the focus is on precision and efficiency over any portability concerns.

Apple's "one app" model is a big part of the mobile user experience that would have to be quickly jettisoned. While Apple's iWork integration, announced at January's special event, points at greater desktop/iPhone OS file system integration, the iPhone OS's one app at a time paradigm simply doesn't work for a multi-purpose, multi-tasking flexible desktop environment. And that's not the only big change that would need to be made. Consider the whole question of each mobile application's GUI needing to fit the device. Desktop users are more comfortable with flexible view sizes in a multi-windowed environment. Terpstra says, "It would take too many concessions to translate the current interface standards of the iPhone OS to desktop use."

That doesn't mean that the two platforms can't share libraries. Already, OS frameworks -- the precompiled libraries of routines that OS X developers on both platforms link to to gain access to Apple-supplied functionality -- are growing closer. Under the hood, iPhone OS and Mac OS are essentially running the same OS, although the specific implementation details differ by platform. But Terpstra maintains that there are intrinsic limitations in that arena as well. He writes, " I don't see the iPhone, Apple TV and OS X ever all sharing a full code base. It would overpower mobile devices and underpower desktops. No one would be happy." That's the consensus here at TUAW as well.