August 01, 2009

Will The Mac OS X Dial Go All the Way to Eleven?

Apple's Mac OS X operating system is almost a decade old. After having gained access to the Mac OS X Public Beta for a cool $29.95 way back in 2001, and followed Apple through all the point builds in the ensuing eight years, from Cheetah (10.0) to Puma (10.1), Jaguar (10.2), Panther (10.3), Tiger (10.4) and now Leopard (10.5), with Snow Leopard (10.6) on the horizon, I've seen Apple meticulously add features, improve functionality, introduce new applications, and redraw the user interface more than a few times. But I am honestly wondering what Cupertino has in their mind for what's next. Why is nobody talking about how the company could follow up with an encore, Mac OS XI (or Eleven), that could change the game again?

An Already-Long Life for Mac OS X

That Mac OS X has survived as long as it has is remarkable already. Mac OS 9, its predecessor, debuted in October of 1999, and its last bug fix release (9.2.2), was issued in December of 2001. Similarly, Mac OS 8 debuted in July of 1997 and got its last update, to OS 8.6, in May of 1999, another two-year stint. Only Mac OS 7's six year run comes close.

Now, while it's true that the long tenure of Mac OS X could be as much related to a new approach to version numbering on Apple's part as anything else (for example 10.5 could have been renamed 11...), part of me thinks the OS is getting a little long in the tooth. Nothing in Snow Leopard excites me, though I no doubt will upgrade to that as well, just to stay current (and some apps may require it). And some of the same major market forces that made the iMac a success are the same ones that are changing the game for what we will expect in an operating system just a few years from now, no doubt.

Somewhere deep in Cupertino's R&D labs, I hope there are some extremely talented engineers thinking long and hard about what's next, and what kind of aggressive changes Apple can take to leverage technologies that simply were not around in 2001, the last time they had to tear down the old and build up the new.

The Desktop Is Giving Way to the Browser and Cloud

Google's Chrome OS and the rumors around Crunchpad's browser-only interface (with no hard disk space) are two volleys into the abyss of what's next. Apple was smart to grasp onto making the iMac one of the easiest ways to get onto the Internet. Apple was a fast follower, debuting the iTunes store as a massive Internet-powered e-commerce site for digital media. But Apple and Mac OS X is still very much driven by the same framework that has existed for decades - utilizing the desktop metaphor, with a Finder, and applications, which run independent of the browser or "the cloud". And the very media we are buying from the iTunes store, be it music, video or applications (for the iPhone) is stored locally on hard drives.

Mac OS X Eleven (or Mac OS XI, whatever they call it) is going to need to compete in a new world that will likely have a grown-up version of Google's Chrome OS, a successor to the already-respected Windows 7, and all matter of other operating systems from netbooks and mobile alike. And while the world does not yet have the ubiquitous high speed broadband needed for always-on mobile cloud computing, more people will, and more companies are working to make that a reality.

What Will the Future of the OS Be?

In the early 1990s, we saw plenty of hype from companies like AT&T who rallied around the idea of a virtual assistant, who would monitor your data and your appointments - someone with whom you could ask, using natural language, a question, and expect a familiar reply. A fun fantasy, people haven't yet realized this dream, and it's not clear that's the way we want to interact with our computers. In addition, Apple's approach to search has not always been the best. Sherlock is long-forgotten, and the company has turned to Google for search on the desktop and iPhone browsers.

The next operating system, from Apple or anybody else, will not be about even fancier, cooler, graphics, or wearing virtual reality glasses, or seeing your file folder structure in 3D. But it will have to see the same kind of metamorphosis and dramatic step changes that the Internet has seen over the last decade. While the Web has grown up, from flat gray backgrounds and purple text links, to full streaming live video and interactive multi-lingual conversations, the desktop is waddling alongside - Steve Jobs' baby who nobody has the heart to tell him has gotten ugly.

I've ridden this ride on Mac OS X to 10.5.7 where we stand today. 10.6 is coming. But I want to start hearing about the future. I want to hear about leadership and authority. And I am very curious if Apple can lead the way in a world where Google is king.

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