The Next Age of the Mac

Yesterday marked the day where Mac OS X has been available to the public longer than the previous Macintosh operating system (known as ‘Mac OS’ [with a space] or ‘Classic’ towards the end of its lifetime).

This has been noted by many on Twitter and on the Mac news sites.

I do think it is a milestone worth noting. Darwin/Mac OS X/OS X/macOS has served as a stable foundation not just for the Mac but also for the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Apple Watch and now even the HomePod.

However, I have also seen comments that the “next age of the Mac” will have to happen soon, because Mac OS X/macOS is so old now. That statement really bugs me.

Mac OS X was not Apple’s first attempt at an operating system to replace ‘Classic.’ In the late 80s and early 90s it was already obvious that the Macintosh System architecture would not scale to modern CPUs and work requirements. An application that crashed would normally take down the entire OS. You had to assign memory to an application manually. System Extensions would frequently conflict with each other and also crash the entire system. There was no concept protected memory or segregating processes from each other. There were no multiple users with access privileges in the file system.

The operating system had been designed for a 8MHz 16-bit CPU with 128KiloByte of RAM where every cycle and every byte had to count! Apple was now in the PowerPC era and the requirements for the system were vastly different.

Taligent, Copland and Gershwin were successive efforts and promises for a better system that each failed for various reasons. Some of the parts of each did find their way into Mac OS. Then Apple bought NeXT (and Steve Jobs) and the rest is history.

So, for most of the nineties, it was obvious that the classic Macintosh system needed replacement something newer. Microsoft had Windows NT and alternative operating systems like BeOS and NeXTStep were showing the way. By the time Mac OS X arrived, classic Mac OS was old, but users needed to hang on to it because of critical applications and workflows.

Now, in 2018, macOS might be as old as Classic was in 2001, but it doesn’t feel as old. Like the original system for the Macintosh 128K, Mac OS X 10.0 was designed for entirely different hardware and use cases. In 2001 only the high-end PowerMacs had two CPUs. Mac OS X required at least 64MB of RAM (a 500 fold increase over the original Macintosh). Laptop batteries would last for three to four hours under the most ideal circumstances. Digital photography and video was still vastly inferior to analog. Music came from CDs. Screens had far lower resolutions and security meant requiring a password to login. Wifi was new, and hardly ubiquitous. Bluetooth was brand new and used in expensive cell phones which where used for talking, not data. There was no App Store.

All of this would change, sometimes quickly, over the next years.

Mac OS X and Apple as a whole were able to adapt to these changes. Hardware and software were optimized to deal with video and media. Multi-tasking and threading were improved as multiple CPUs and cores became cheaper and common, even in laptops, tablets and phones. As mobility and power consumption got more important the hardware and software was adapted to take that into account. Security and privacy became more and more important and integrated in the operating systems and file systems.

Apple used Mac OS X as the basis for iPhone OS, porting a Unix system to a phone. There has also been much back and forth of software and technology between the two systems (or three or four). macOS and iOS have evolved, changed and adapted in a way that the classic Mac OS in the 80s and 90s did not.

I am not claiming that macOS in its current form is perfect and cannot or should not be improved. In a few days at WWDC Apple will show us how they plan to further evolve macOS and iOS to adapt further to the future and I am looking forward to it.

When you wonder ‘what is next for the Mac’ you are ignoring that in 2018, the Mac and macOS are not an isolated platform any more.

All my Apple devices talk with each other and exchange data. My Mac shows me which website I am reading on the phone. My phone unlocks my watch and my watch can unlock my Mac. I can create a note on my tablet, add pictures from the phone and finish it on my Mac. I can read messages on my Mac or have them read to me by the phone through my headphones. When I say ‘Hey Siri’ the devices that can hear me decide among themselves which should answer.

macOS and the Mac are now just a part of larger ‘system.’ This system runs on different devices: from my headphones to the iMac on my desk to servers on Apple’s data centers. It includes custom silicone, software, and data stores and relies on communication and local cached data and protocols to communicate locally and all around the world.

The digital hub has grown to the ‘digital net’, where everything is connected and (ideally) everything is available everywhere.

Not all of this works all the time yet. Why the iPhone still cannot pickup a playlist from where I paused it on the Mac is still an absolute mystery to me.

When this new system fails, we get very frustrated, there is no ‘shell’ we can drop down to, to fix a thing. It is often quite impossible to even figure out in which part of this net of devices and services the problem is occuring.

macOS, iOS, iCloud, Siri, HomeKit, Bluetooth and Wifi, Messaging, email, App Stores and third party apps, devices and services like Google, Office 365, 1Password, etc.

Hardware, software and services. All have to work together in the digital net.

When Apple introduced Mac OS X one of the main benefits was that you could easily manage multiple users on one device.

Now, 17 years later, we have multiple devices per user.

I want is the Mac to keep evolving and adapting with my digital net, so I can continue to use its strengths (large screen, CPU/GPU power, storage, high throughput I/O) and supplement its weaknesses (not mobile, few sensors) with the other devices and services. I don’t want the Mac to fall behind or out of the digital net.

I want to stop having to think about whether something I want to do is a “Mac” task or a “phone” task, but whether I’d rather have a keyboard and a large screen or maybe prefer to do it in a chair in the backyard or by talking with Siri, while walking somewhere. Not all those options will work for every task, but I’d like the options to increase. And I want the Mac to be part of that.

I don’t expect a new age for the Mac. I don’t want a new age for the Mac. That would be too small, too myopic, too limiting.

The next age of the Mac is with the digital net and it has already begun.

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