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Separated at birth: Why Apple won't merge OS X and iOS

Marco Tabini | Feb. 17, 2014
Should Apple merge its two flagship operating systems into a single product? Not so fast, says contributor Marco Tabini.

osxandios primary

Ever since Apple introduced the iPhone, one argument that continually rears its ugly head is that the company must somehow find a way to merge its desktop and mobile operating systems into a single product. Most recently, one analyst has claimed that the folks from Cupertino are working on an "iAnywhere" operating system that would allow a special dock to turn a tablet into a full-fledged desktop computer destined for the professional-user market.

While there's something admittedly tempting about the idea of one device to rule them all, my time as a developer—as well as a user of Apple products—has convinced me that this is one road the company is in no hurry to take. 

Separated at birth
I don't profess to own a better crystal ball than anyone else, and I definitely don't have Tim Cook on speed dial (if I did, I'd be asking him twice daily why my iBooks library looks like it's been taken over by zombie e-book replicants). It seems to me, however, that merging iOS and OS X into a single platform would, at best, be a very hard move to accomplish with the level of polish that Apple expects of its products. And, at worst, it would fly right in the face of everything the company has worked so hard for in the last several years.

What this kind of analysis tends to ignore is that the company's two flagship operating systems already are the same product already where it matters.

I don't mean this figuratively, the way one would say that iOS and OS X "share a common heritage." I mean, quite literally, that the underpinnings of both operating systems are based on the same software—and, in fact, that they share a large number of frameworks that can be used interchangeably on either a Mac or an iPhone.

A touch is not a click
Given that fundamental commonality, it's clear that Apple's designers and engineers made a very deliberate choice when they split iOS into a separate product. Surely, part of this choice was dictated by the fact that the original iPhone was a far less powerful computer than its desktop counterparts; this explains why some of the more advanced functionality has only made its way to the mobile platform in recent versions. The capabilities of the hardware in more recent devices have finally increased to near-desktop levels.

The main determinant, however, was the need to create a new kind of computing experience that required a completely different model of user-machine interaction: one based on touch. That's a far cry from the kind of indirect manipulation that a mouse makes possible in a desktop environment. Thus, Apple kept the parts of the operating system that could be shared across multiple platforms, and replaced those that couldn't--a best-of-both-worlds approach that ended up revolutionizing the way hundreds of millions of people use their computers everyday.


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