Mac OS X 10.7′s Revolutionary Feature: iApps on the Desktop

On the eve of Apple’s “Back to the Mac” media event, the question on everyone’s mind is what Apple will reveal as Mac OS X 10.7 Lion’s “revolutionary” new feature. An Apple job posting even touted the need for a senior software engineer to help build this feature. One can’t help but feel the posting was intentionally worded to create buzz, and Wednesday will likely mark the day we learn just what is so special about 10.7 Lion.

In some ways, Apple needs its new Mac OS X revision to have a revolutionary feature. If the iPhone, iPad, and iOS are revolutionary in the mobile market, 10.6 Snow Leopard was intentionally evolutionary in the desktop market. Billed simply as “finely tuned,” Snow Leopard’s main claim to fame is that it’s the first version of Mac OS X that is exclusively available on Intel Macs. With Mac OS X’s market share climbing above 10% for the first time in decades, Apple needs 10.7 Lion to be an exciting and significant update in order to keep the Mac at the forefront of its users minds. Thus, Mac OS X needs a revolutionary feature, and that feature is …

I believe that Mac OS X 10.7 Lion will feature iOS application integration within the operating system, meaning Mac users can run iOS applications on the Desktop as though the app was designed for Mac OS X. iApps will visually appear on the screen much like Dashboard widgets currently do, except that users will view iApps in a dimmed overlay like in Dashboard. Instead, the iApps will appear in a newly designed Dock, just like Mac OS X apps. I expect the Dock to resemble iOS’s dock at the bottom of the iPhone and iPad. Before we look at how this will work, let’s review why this decision is being made.

Could Mac OS X's Dashboard be the forerunner to iApps on the Desktop?

Whether we as Mac users love it or hate it, Apple’s core profit center and largest user base centers around its iOS products: the iPhone, iPad, and (of course) iPod. Apple’s 2010 Q4 results show that there are now more than 125 million iOS devices, and the App Store revenue exceeded $1 Billion in this past quarter alone. This ecosystem generates a tremendous amount of revenue and profit for Apple, but Mac (and Windows) users have no ability to spend their money on applications that they can then use on their computers.

Apple has publicly stated that they have no intention to create an App Store for Mac OS X apps. This makes sense. Mac OS X app developers would never allow applications to be screened by Apple, allow Apple to control the rollout of updates, or take one third of the app’s revenue. Because Mac OS X users already know how to find commercial, shareware, and freeware applications, there’s little incentive for developers to use an integrated app store for marketing purposes. In short: Apple’s not going to make money from a Mac app store. The only way Apple can effectuate revenue from the iOS App Store on the desktop is to bring iOS apps to the Mac, so that is what they will do.

Financially, there is little risk for Apple in this venture. First, it will not be costly. Apple already bases the iOS on Mac OS X, so there is a tremendous amount of overlap in the source code and developer libraries. Developers use an iPhone/iPad simulator in Mac OS X to test their apps before testing them on real iOS devices, so Apple has been able to emulate much of the iOS in Mac OS X for years. The next step is to remove the isolated emulation of an iOS device inside a single application, which is what Apple had to do to run the legacy Mac OS 9 inside Mac OS X.  Because iOS is so closely related to Mac OS X, Apple will be able to accomplish this.

Second, there is no downside for iApp developers, which means both developers and Apple will make more money at the App Store. There really only is one way iApps on Mac OS X could hurt Apple: It cannibalizes iOS hardware devices sales because people can now run iApps on the Mac instead of the iPhone. But is that likely? Do you really think people buy iOS devices because they want to run apps that don’t exist anywhere else? No, they don’t. But, I guarantee there are thousands of people who wish they could play Angry Birds on their Macs.  And there are thousands (if not millions) of Mac users who wish they could edit documents in Pages on the Mac and have the edits transition seamlessly over to Pages for the iPad. Windows users are enamored with the iPhone and iPad, but they’ll never be able to run the iOS on their desktops because Windows shares no common source code with Mac OS X. Might they be further tempted to add a Mac to their iExperience and ecosystem? This last point brings me to the last “Why” of this article…

There is no ability to directly synchronize or edit data for an iOS app between the iOS device and the Mac. All we have is an iTunes interface that transfers media and apps between the iOS device and the Mac’s hard drive via a USB cable. There is no way to run iOS apps on the Mac, nor is there any way to edit data contained within iApps. As frustrating as this is, Apple really only has two ways to resolve this: bring more Mac OS X technologies to iOS or bring more iOS technologies to Mac OS X. When presented with this scenario, there’s really only one solution: bring iOS to Mac OS X.

The iOS is brilliant because of its simplicity: tap, swipe, pinch. That’s it. No complex key commands, no cluttered interface, no maintenance. This simplicity comes at a cost: fewer features. iOS 4.2 will add printing, but even this will be rudimentary (it will require a Mac running Mac OS X 10.6.5 or a pre-approved wireless printer). We can’t use a mouse, USB devices, or edit photos imported with the iPod Camera Connector. And we certainly can’t run Mac OS X apps. People will clamor for the iPad to become more useful. It’s certainly a wonderful device for consuming media, but it’s not good at creating anything, and creativity has always been the Mac’s calling card. After all, the entire iLife suite is designed to help regular people create, not consume. While the iPad may never equal its Mac cousin, it has to have a little creativity in it. It has to have a little functionality, too, and that’s why Apple is adding printing (yes, in a 2010 tablet, printing is a new feature).

While Apple will slowly add functionality to the iPad, it will never make it like a Mac, and this is the right approach: tablets should be tablets and computers should be computers. I don’t want to read a magazine on my Mac, and I don’t want to edit a magazine’s layout on my iPad. But, I would like to be able to transfer my open Safari tabs from my MacBook Pro to my iPad when I leave the house.  I would also like Numbers to sync my spreadsheet and remember which cell I was editing the last time I used it on any Mac or iOS device. I’d love to be able to pause Doodle Jump in the middle of a game on my iPhone and resume it on my Mac. This kind of integration and synchronization will only happen once Apple puts the iOS on the Desktop.

jProductivity's myPhoneDesktop is the closest we have to an integrated iOS experience.

With the iOS on the desktop, app developers will still be building apps for the iPhone and iPad, but Mac users can run them on their Macs as though they are looking at iOS windows. Apple will (rightly) be able to say that they are not building a Mac App Store, but both Apple and developers will profit from additional sales. I think games will be the biggest winners, but I know I’d much rather look at Twitter and Facebook through Flipboard on my desktop, and I’d much rather read the news through Pulse News or Early Edition.

Apple has long promised that they will bring wireless syncing to iTunes. The problem is that people have been taking this promise too literally. Apple is not looking to cut the USB cord out of the equation. They could have done that years ago. They are looking to change the way we think of syncing. Imagine a world where all of your iApps actually synced between your Mac and your iPhone: you download an app from the App Store on your Mac, run it on your Mac, and the app and its settings then get downloaded to your iPhone. That’s what Apple is talking about. There is no need to build a billion dollar data center in North Carolina just to add some stability to MobileMe. It’s for streaming all your music and movies from the cloud, and starting with 10.7 Lion, it’s for syncing all your iOS apps between devices and the cloud.

Apple will show off its new MacBook Air, and it will be great, mostly because the Air is my favorite Mac. It’s also the closest device to an iPad, which provides Apple an excellent opportunity to demo its newest technology on the device “best designed to bridge the desktop and mobile worlds.” Whether you control the iApp on the Mac using a mouse or a touch screen, that really doesn’t matter to me. Both have been around forever. Personally, I’d rather use a mouse on my Mac, but a touch screen would be neat. The fact that you’ll see an iOS app running alongside Microsoft Word? That’s revolutionary.

Tagged as: apple, iPad, Lion, mac, MacBook Air

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