How will Apple converge mobile devices and computers into one?

One day, the smartphone in your pocket will also be the brain of the computer on your desk. Apple may have a plan to make this vision a reality.

Mac and iPhone

Recently, Canonical failed to meet its funding goal of $32 million for a project to make a futuristic smartphone called the Ubuntu Edge. The Ubuntu Edge is borne out of the dream of having a super powerful smartphone that is also the computer on your desk. The idea is to “converge” the smartphone and the computer into one device. In practical terms, due to the smartphone’s small physical screen, it requires a connection to an external monitor, keyboard (and maybe a mouse) to transform it into a computer.

When Apple released the iPhone 5S, it became the first smartphone that comes with a 64-bit processor. Canonical founder, Mark Shuttleworth was so excited about the iPhone 5S because he believed that the Ubuntu Edge dream now lived on Apple’s new 64-bit iPhone. In his eyes, Apple’s choice of words (“desktop-class” and “forward thinking”) to describe it gave weight to this idea of convergence.

In a way, this is a continuation of a dream started by Apple under Steve Jobs. As I wrote in How does a half-baked computer (Apple iPad) become a roaring success?,

Then one day, Apple came up with the iPhone followed by the iPad. Suddenly, consumers realised that a parallel universe exists where computers actually work, behave reliably and respond instantaneously. No more surprises, stuffs ups, excuses, freezes and wait. In fact, computers were no longer computers—they had become appliances. Once consumers got used to this parallel universe, there’s no going back to world of unreliable and unresponsive computers that don’t always work. Yes, tablet computers are not as functional as fully-fledged PCs, but they can do most of what consumers want to do. For the stuffs that cannot be done on the tablet, they can always grudgingly return to their PCs. As more and more apps are developed for the iPad, the functionality gap between tablets and PCs will narrow, reducing the need for consumers to return to their PCs.

Now, look at the bold text in the above quote.

What if consumers can do everything on their mobile devices (tablets and smartphones) without ever returning to their computers? As much as they love their devices, they still can’t get rid of their computer. They still have to own a device and a computer.

Owning both a device and a computer is not ideal. You need two different sets of software. Some software may be available for the computer but not for the device (and vice versa). Even if they are available for the device, they may not support the full feature set (the device usually contain the smaller set). Furthermore, the software to work on a file format may come from different software vendors on the computer and device, thus introducing potential incompatibility issues (e.g. working on .docx file with Microsoft Word on Windows PC and Pages app on iPad).

To put it simply, there is no “seamless continuation of experience” across the computer and device (an idea that I first discussed here). Although you may feel some semblance of continuity if you use the same vendor for your device and computer (e.g. Apple Mac and iPad/iPhone), it is still not perfect. The only way to achieve perfect seamless continuity is to merge the device and computer into one device. Practically, to mimic the physical form factor of a computer, the merged device can be docked into external peripherals (e.g. monitor, keyboard, mouse, touchscreen) or some other forms of specialised docking station designed for this purpose.

This is the idea behind the “convergence” buzzword. This is nice in concept. But how can it be done?

Will Apple merge OS X and iOS?

It is popularly speculated that Apple will bring the computer and device closer and closer together until they become one. Proponents of this theory noticed that Apple had recently dropped the “Mac” from their “Mac OS X” computer operating system and simply called it “OS X”. In terms of design and features, OS X has been borrowing from their device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) counterpart, iOS. The idea is that eventually, Apple will gradually merge the iOS and OS X operating systems until they become one.

Personally, I doubt this is what they will do. Merging two operating systems into one is not a trivial technical undertaking. Doing so without glitches from their users’ point of view is another challenge. Getting the software development community’s complete cooperation and collaboration is another major challenge.

For starters, both operating systems runs on two incompatible instruction sets (underlying machine ‘language’ that the operating systems are written in). OS X runs on Intel x86 while iOS runs on ARM (that is, roughly speaking, OS X speaks the Intel x86 ‘language’ whereas iOS speaks the ARM ‘language’). To merge both operating systems, Apple will have to translate either one of them into the other instruction set. Some are already speculating that Apple will produce the ARM version of OS X. Should Apple do that, then all existing software written for the OS X are unable to run on the ARM-based OS X because they all speak the Intel x86 ‘language’. This will create a disaster for Apple because ‘everything’ on OS X will stop working because all existing OS X software will be rendered inoperative. To solve this problem, Apple will have to either:

  1. Convince software developers to translate (technically, called “recompile”) their existing software into the ARM ‘language’
  2. Provide a software (called an “emulator”) whose job is to translate on the fly the Intel x86 ‘language’ into the ARM ‘language’.

The last Apple change the ‘language’ of OS X was in 2005. Back then, they both convinced software developers to translate as well as provide an emulator. This time, if they are going to do that, they definitely wouldn’t follow Microsoft’s example: by splitting Macs into Intel-based and ARM-based OS X, resulting in confusion for their customers (Microsoft stuffed up by bewildering consumers with their forked Windows- Windows RT and Windows 8).

Transitioning to the ARM version of OS X is just the beginning of the work. The next major work to do is to merge the OS X and iOS together operating systems together:

  1. Merging their user interface ‘modes’ alone is a problematic task. The former is optimised for working with keyboard/mouse while the latter is based on using fingers on the touchscreen. Merging the two user interface modes of both of them will result in an operating system that gives their users a sub-par experience. Microsoft is an object example not to follow. Their Windows 8 is designed for use with a touchscreen in the new Modern interface and mouse/keyboard combination in the traditional desktop mode. But as a whole, Windows 8 does not give its users the best experience- its desktop mode does not give touchscreen users a good experience, while the Modern interface does not give keyboard/mouse users a good experience. So, more and more Windows 8 devices are coming up with both keyboard/mouse and touchscreen to cater for both user interface modes. Although catering for both user interface modes simultaneously is often described as “best of both world”, in reality, it is a compromise to maintain backward compatibility with the past.
  2. Merging the Application Programming Interface (API) of the two operating systems is another major challenge. Although both of them have the same underlying Unix roots, there are enough differences to make both of them distinct creatures. Merging both of them and at the same time, ensuring that the computer/devices and existing software still ‘just works’ from the average users’ point of view is no simple feat. There are simply too much room for bugs, mistakes and screw ups to creep in.

Personally, I doubt Apple will merge OS X and iOS.

Overshadowing OS X

I think it is more likely that Apple will slowly let iOS overshadow OS X instead. After all, OS X belongs to the past. It belongs to a time when computers behave just like computers, which mortals wrestle with daily and aren’t a pleasure to use. Consumers hate computers (arguably, Macs receive more love from their users than PCs), but they love their mobile devices much more. Technically, mobile devices are also computers. But they aren’t seen as computers. The difference between the two is the operating system. No matter how much Apple improve upon OS X, it is still an anachronistic operating system, along with all the software that runs on it.

iOS (along with the mobile devices that it runs on), on the other hand, is an operating system made for today and the future. It is an operating system that is not encumbered by the need to maintain compatibility with the past (e.g. legacy software). It is a clean break from the past, with its new set of software (apps) and hardware.

What is the strategy that Apple is goinig to do to bring their users out of the past into the future?

I think Apple will concentrate the bulk of innovations on the iOS and mobile devices. Mobile devices will become more and more powerful, even ridiculously powerful, to the point of rivaling the power of computers. New generation of software that couldn’t run well on mobile devices in the past will run on them (I can think of iMovie as an example- it was unfeasible to do video editing in the first generation iPads. But now, you can do it on the latest iPad Air). Apple’s strategy is to let them continue to amaze consumers even more in the years to come. The pace of innovation on the Macs will be relatively much slower. Over time, it will become painfully obviously that Macs running OS X belong to the past and that devices running iOS are much more superior and desirable. That will cause a natural shift away from OS X towards iOS. That means, more and more consumers will be using iOS devices as their only computing machines. Some children today may perhaps never get to use computers in their lives.

Here are some of the signs that Apple are pursuing this strategy:

  • In October 2013, Apple released the first 64-bit smartphone, the iPhone 5S. Currently, there’s not much technical advantage with using a 64-bit processor in a smartphopne. There’s currently few apps that takes advantage of the 64-bit processor. But the 64-bit processor enables a new generation of apps that used to be only feasible to run on a computer to be able to run on the newer mobile devices.
  • There are already rumours that Apple will release a 13-inch iPad in 2014. This is consistent with this strategy that Apple is pursuing. A 13-inch iPad is a device that is hardly ‘mobile’. It is the size of computers, most notably the MacBook Air. This is a clear sign that Apple is letting iOS devices overshadow computers, perhaps even supplanting their Macs one day.

Convergence dream

Once iOS overshadows OS X, the dream of convergence can begin. There are two possible routes that I can think of that Apple can take:

  1. Multiple devices of different form factors (e.g. desktop-based 13-inch iPad and handheld iPhone) united together by iCloud to achieve almost seamless continuation of experience.
  2. A power super phone that can be docked into external touchscreen monitor/keyboard (probably Apple branded) to function like a desktop computer.

In terms of user experience, the second route is much better. In the first route, although iCloud can be used to achieve seamless continuation of experience by synchronising all your work across all your devices, not everything can be synchronised. For example, if you are editing a multi-gigabyte movie, it is not feasible or desirable to transfer all these gigabytes of data between your devices through the Internet via iCloud. Furthermore, not all apps can take advantage of iCloud to keep multiple instances of themselves in sync across multiple devices.

If Apple is really planning for the convergence, my speculation is that Apple may take the first route as an intermediary towards the second route. The rumoured 13-inch iPad may not even turn out to be a reality at all. Apple may be manufacturing it to use it internally to test out the iOS in a desktop-sized form factor. The problem with this theory is that app developers will not get on board to create apps for the 13-inch screen form factor). Therefore, the more likely possibility is that Apple will release the 13-inch iPad to get app developers on board. Once there is a critical mass of apps for that 13-inch form factor, then it is the right time to embark on the second route by producing a special docking station that can connect an iPhone to an external 13-inch touchscreen and/or keyboard. Since apps already exist for the 13-inch iPads, then they can also function in a iPhone that is docked to a 13-inch touchscreen.

What about the existing iPad Mini (7.9-inch) and iPad (9.7-inch) form factors? I suspect Apple can produce iPhone touchscreen docking station for these form factors as well. This will be a significant improvement in user experience over the status quo. Currently, the only reason why you would want both an iPhone and iPad is so that you can enjoy the physical comfort of the iPad form factor and the convenience of the of the iPhone’s portability. But imagine an alternative universe where all you have is an iPhone that can be docked to an external 9.7-inch touchscreen. In this alternate universe, you don’t need to own multiple devices. All you need is one device that can be docked into external touch screens that can give you the different form factor you need.

Thus, this is the convergence dream: one device, multiple form factors. Apple may have a plan to make this dream a reality. We shall see.

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