Is OS X becoming ‘Legacy’?

You might have missed the fact that Apple’s iPad Pro is about 50% faster than the new Retina MacBook. That’s right, Apple’s ARM chip running iOS is faster–for the same price point–as an Intel chip running on OS X.

As Apple’s mobile devices–powered by their AX series of processors–become more powerful, the inevitable question comes up: Whither OS X and Intel?

I’ve long wondered whether OS X would be ported to the ARM architecture to work on a MacBook-like device that used an Apple A10 chip (or maybe a new B-series).

The other possibility, of course, is that the opposite happens: instead of OS X coming to ARM, iOS (already on ARM) would gain a mouse-and-keyboard interface. And, just as watchOS and tvOS were created to handle the Crown and Siri Remote, there would be a new AppleOS or mouseOS or macOS that would be based on iOS but have a different user interaction mechanism.

I used to be on the fence about which option Apple could take, and thought it was a 50:50 probability as to whether OS X would be ported to ARM or whether iOS would gain mouse-and-keyboard functionality.
But a while back, Benedict Evans, a VC analyst at Andreesen-Horowitz, tweeted this:

“Apple has replaced operating systems before. iOS will replace OS X in due course too. Modern versus legacy.” 

And ever since then, I’ve come more and more into his camp, thinking he’s absolutely right. Let me explain why.

In a nutshell, here is why this makes sense:

  • Apple has become an iOS & ARM-focused company. Apple is entirely based on ARM & iOS: from watch to iPod to iPhone to iPad to, presumably, Apple Car
  • Apple has made steady progress on custom ARM chips and shows no sign of stopping. Ax chips are faster than Intel mobile chips (in the Retina MacBook and Surface Pro 4). Apple will only get better, and rumor is they’re working on their own GPUs, too
  • Apple can save significant costs with 1 platform and no Intel tax. Why support 2 chip architectures (ARM & Intel) and 2 OSes (iOS and OS X) indefinitely? That makes no sense.

For this to work, iOS has to slowly pull more and more from OS X. The nice thing about this for Apple is that they can reimagine how a feature might work and implement it differently in iOS, as long as it gives users a similar benefit and gives Apple more control and security. For example, OS X has unlimited multitasking whereas in iOS this was reimagined to time-limit how much work can be done in the background, to save battery life.

Similarly, IPC (inter-process communication) is complex and powerful in OS X, but has potential security issues, whereas in iOS, it is (so far) limited to Extensions.

So, really, iOS becomes, over time, the OS that Apple wishes OS X were: a mobile-friendly but also desktop-capable OS that has great battery life and great security.

When Apple released the Retina MacBook with a single USB Type C port, I had an aha! moment. USB Type C looks almost like a Lightning port that Apple uses for all their iOS devices. Apple prefers iOS over OS X because it’s more locked down–you have to use the App Store to install apps, so it’s inherently more secure than OS X. The Retina MacBook with USB Type C could be Apple’s way of getting users used to laptops with a single port. USB is not locked down the way Lightning is, so it is quite expandable, but it is quite remarkable to see a laptop with a single port.

Now Apple would want to move from USB C to Lightning, but trying that on OS X would be problematic. But what about introducing a (non-Mac branded?) laptop running iOS and with a single Lightning port? (It may or may not have a touchscreen.) That would give Apple all the control they want: it’s running iOS and has a Lightning port, but it looks just like a laptop. It’s not the iOS we know and love today, of course–it would be modified (and much like tvOS and watchOS, be branded differently as, say, AppleOS) to work with a keyboard and mouse/touchpad like any other laptop.

This would be the first transition device. Sure the twittersphere and blogosphere would wail and moan about the non-expandability of this new iOS-based laptop, but Apple would simply point to the Retina MacBook and say, “See, we already have a device with a single port. It’s just iOS now.”

This would benefit Apple in terms of security, control, app distribution, performance advantage (right now, now laptop maker can claim they’re any faster than another because they all use Intel chips), and lack of any Intel tax, increasing margins.

I’m convinced that this ARM-based laptop will exist, and will lead the way to the eventual slow decay of OS X and the rise of an iOS derivative powering the computing devices of the future. Apple will iterate on this year after year, effectively replacing more and more Intel devices over time. This is the future.


15 thoughts on “Is OS X becoming ‘Legacy’?

  1. Seth Lewin says:

    Some of us still want an expandable, modifiable general-purpose computer, not a locked-down upscaled iPad with a keyboard, a thing linked to iTunes as gatekeeper. iTune is just Apple’s way of conveying “No, you can’t do that” to its customers. Can’t say I’m happy with Apple’s direction in Macs in recent years so their heading in the direction the article suggests would come as no surprise. Probably should buy an iMac now and hope it lasts for many years.

  2. A few thoughts —

    1. It seems like there’s an iLaw on the books which is to never ever say out loud one of the critical differences between iOS and virtually every other OS: it’s a DRM OS. That is, in iOS — torrents are a no-go. Similarly — apps that allow computing ‘trickery’ are kinda out. Like VirtualBox, a free app that ‘tricks’ Linux or Windows onto (for instance) onto a Mac. It’s a walled garden. And I’m not saying that’s all bad, but what you’re doing is talking about a computing ‘device’ versus a computer. Most people are non-tech savvy and so a computing device is perfectly acceptable.

    2. You speak of an Intel tax. As a lifelong Mac user who now dances in Win10 too — this is the ‘burbs of Smirk City. An INTEL tax? REALLY. I can buy an Intel Core M 13 inch laptop from Asus (that’s typically cheaper than $699) with 256SSD and 8GBs of RAM. Or I can buy a similar ‘MacBook’ with an Intel Core M chip, a sharper shinier 12 inch screen but almost identical internal spec. Except that MacBook lacks all sorts of ports. And costs almost twice as much. So it’s the same basic intel chip but for some reason the Mac is twice as much. Come again?

    3. An iOS Book would rule. That would be an iPad Pro with a dedicated keyboard and trackpad. It should have come out several years ago, but didn’t — because Apple is trying to sell these devices separately. Thanks to MS those days are numbered. But believe you me —

    4. — there will be no such thing as an iOS Book under $1299. It will likely start at $1499. Because Apple doesn’t give a crepe about marketshare. Only profit.

  3. Seth Lewin says:

    “one of the critical differences between iOS and virtually every other OS: it’s a DRM OS”

    Right. I wonder about Linux. There’s a Linux OS on my Synology NAS (DSM 5.2) which isn’t bad at all. It kind of just works, the way the MacOS is supposed to.

    I can’t choke down Windows as an OS for my personal use however if Apple iOS-ifies OS X to the point of intolerability then it may be time to look elsewhere.

    • The article does not say that Apple will iOS-ify OSX. The author’s position is mere that, over time, iOS will become capable to the point where most mainstream users may not need OSX or full Windows.

      Think about it this way. When MS released .NET, it said Win32 wasn’t dead but was done. The same concept can apply here. OSX is not dead, but maybe within the walls of Apple, it is, for the most part done. The only thing I think Apple needs to do to close the circle is bring Universal Apps to all devices – iPhone, TV, Watch, iPad, Mac.

  4. Replying to Seth Lewin’s query regarding Linux.

    Linux has its own rules they don’t like talked about out loud. If you watch reviews of Linux OSes on YouTube, you hear peeps go on and on and on about the same basic ‘free’ apps included with Linux. That is: the distro includes LibreOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, Gimp, etcetera. What took me a while to notice —

    — is something I like to call CHOICE OF ONE. That is: there are not four or five good email clients on Linux. There’s typically a choice of one. THUNDERBIRD has been the choice for ages, but the problem is it’s being abandoned. This only leaves newbie Geary and email through browsers.

    And so Linux goes on and on and ON about all the distro choices, but really the app choices are terribly limited. Not only in esoteric apps for specific needs and industries but basic computing needs within every day apps.

    The next problem with Linux is that the fans rave themselves blind… but actual objective use produces different results. I was waiting and waiting and waiting for the new Elementary OS release. It took those boys ages to get Freya out. And once released? Bug frickin’ city. It was so bad as to be unusable.

    Diving deeper into Linux you learn a lot of the distros are really just simple (almost silly) variants of Ubuntu. But Ubuntu’s flagship distro looks kinda sad in the El Capitan/Win10 age. But you’re not supposed to say that out loud. Sssh!

    As much of a Linux fan I was trying to be (and I was VBoxing with the best of them for years), Linux has to get a killer distro together. And it’s NOT Mint — despite the fanboys that post on every last tech blog about it.

    I find Win10 eats Linux for breakfast — and I resent MS to no end. But when I realized I was beginning to resent Apple as much — what can I tell ya?

    • Seth Lewin says:

      For now I’ll stick with OS X and see where it goes and what my needs are. Apple does listen to some extent. I once wrote to Tim Cook about a gripe I had about the loss of save-as in Lion or Mountain Lion and got a call back from an Apple person in Texas so they’re not totally impervious and they did modify the versioning behavior. Of course they promised to bring out a new, terrific successor to the old MacPro and that didn’t go anyplace I hoped it would. Such is life.

  5. Ramayya says:

    For ARM to become the processor of choice, there needs to be a version of Java that runs on that platform. The reason being that there are quite a few applications that use JRE to run under multiple OSs.

    • We already know what Apple thinks of Java: they stopped distributing the web plugin and bug patching it! They let Oracle handle that now. The Apple JRE 6 that came with 10.7 no longer installs on 10.11. Like Flash, (it’s hard to believe they used to ship Flash patches as part of the OS), they stopped distributing it pronto when Flash made up 42% of the CVEs in 10.6.5 – (and it sucked up all the battery life). Java is just not on Apple’s radar to support (nor is iOS on Oracle’s radar). Both these security scourges are being slowly banished.

  6. Pingback: Apple has hugely ambitious plans for open-sourced Swift, and hints on what’s coming to iOS | Lou Miranda

  7. James says:

    There is a niche but important group that uses Apple devices that will likely not stand for a locked down iOS computer for their work. That group is developers of course. It is simply too much trouble to develop software with a locked down machine. If Apple wants to replace OS X with iOS for developers, they will need a developer mode where the device is essentially jailbroken. What are the odds that Apple will do that?

    I don’t see any way around this problem. Developers need open environments to get their work done. iOS is unlikely to ever be unlocked to the level needed. Apple needs a general purpose system for users who require it.


    • I think it’s clear that Apple has been thinking about this, as Xcode moves to a more sandboxed environment itself. Surely, Apple is thinking about alternative ways to make developers productive on iOS.

      • James says:

        But Xcode is only one way developers use OS X. A significant amount of modern development is done on Macs that use a variety of tools mostly unrelated to Xcode. It would be a mistake to force all of those developers to alternate platform. Developers will mostly not stand being forced into a sandboxed environment without the ability to create and use development tools that they need without interference.

      • 1. I said there are alternatives Apple may be considering.
        2. I doubt an ARM-based laptop would supersede MacBooks right away. Developers could certainly continue to use Macs and OS X. But if you want the newest, coolest hardware…

        But I bet a significant subset of developers would find many limitations undaunting. And, of course, iOS would increase in power and flexibility over time, just as OS X has done.

        I do think Apple will attempt to lock things down more than on OS X. How much so, I can’t say.

        Things change. Far-sighted developers adapt.

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