Apple's platforms are converging, but they aren't yet one

By Nathaniel Mott , written on June 12, 2013

From The News Desk

It's becoming increasingly difficult to articulate the difference between iOS and OS X. Apple has successfully blurred the line between the two by allowing both platforms to borrow features and interface design from each other to the point that it's hard to tell the difference between an application developed for the iPhone and one developed for the Mac.

Nowhere is this more evident than OS X Mavericks, the latest version of Apple's desktop operating system, and iOS 7, the first version of Apple's mobile platform to be directed by Jonathan Ive, Apple's head of industrial and interaction design. Apps and services previously exclusive to iOS like Maps and iBooks have been brought to the desktop; other applications, like Calendar, have been redesigned to look more like their mobile counterparts; and even the way OS X handles memory, notifications, and Web browsers is modeled after iOS. The two platforms are converging, but they aren't yet as united as, say, Windows -- which might be why Apple has yet to release a PC with a touchscreen-equipped display.

Yesterday I wrote that Apple has essentially left the MacBook Air alone since 2011, focusing on the refinement of certain aspects of the device -- battery life, processing power, graphics performance -- instead of the latest trends in notebook computers. The product had proven itself to be good enough for most consumers, who seek the MacBook Air's features and low price largely because the device doesn't have the glaring faults present in many of its competitors. But what if the MacBook Air's continued popularity isn't the only reason Apple hasn't made a meaningful change to the product line in two years; what if it's simply waiting for OS X to be ready for our stubby little fingers?

As much as OS X has borrowed from iOS -- in addition to the things listed above there is Launchpad, which emulates the iOS homescreen; an increased focus on multitouch-enabled interactions; and iOS-like sharing in apps like Safari and iPhoto -- the operating system is still very much designed for the desktop. Many applications, despite the aesthetic similarities to their mobile counterparts, would be frustrating to use if you could or had to reach out and touch them. The buttons are too small, the built-in gesture controls would conflict with a multitouch interface, and it would be a veritable nightmare to try and use any current Mac app with your fingers.

Ive -- and Apple as a whole -- is fond of saying that design is about more than the way something looks, it's the way something works. OS X Mavericks might be the most iOS-looking version of OS X to date, but it's a fundamentally different operating system built for a different type of input. It doesn't matter how many notifications roll across your Mac's display or how much Calendar, iBooks, and Maps look like their iOS counterparts -- OS X is built around point-and-click, iOS is built around tap-and-swipe. That's a wide gap to bridge.

And it isn't like Apple to just introduce a touchscreen without thinking about these things. Recognizing that everything with a touchscreen, be it a smartphone or a tablet, requires its own touch-specific interface was the thing that allowed Apple to usher in the modern smartphone era and succeed in the tablet market after other companies had tried and failed to define the category. OS X simply isn't ready to be touched.

"Anything can be forced to converge, but the problem is that products are about tradeoffs, and you begin to make tradeoffs to the point where what you have left doesn't please anyone," Apple CEO Tim Cook said during an earnings call. "You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not gonna be pleasing to the user."

Until that changes it won't matter how many features OS X and iOS swap, how many design elements are shared between the two, or how many of Apple's competitors (and there are many) introduce touchscreens to their laptops and try to create hybrid devices capable of existing in both worlds. The MacBook Air is, as I argued yesterday, already good enough -- why should Apple ruin that by changing the device's hardware before the proper software has even been developed? OS X and iOS are becoming more and more similar with every update, but they aren't yet one cohesive whole.

[Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons]