The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently published a new patent (via Patently Apple) that describes a system by which Spaces, Apple’s system for operating multiple independent desktops on one computer, might be brought to the iPad. The patent, which Apple applied for in 2009, doesn’t make too much sense as depicted in the accompanying images — unless you consider that it could provide more clues into the future of iOS.
Spaces on the tablet would apparently work like Spaces on OS X, letting a user set up different workspaces, then view those separate desktops all at once from a thumb-nailed, bird’s-eye view, which would allow for fast switching between them. On iOS in its current state, this might mean showing all recently opened apps that normally reside in the multitasking tray; each as its own distinct space with a thumbnail preview of the app’s last state between shutdown.
What the patent actually depicts, however, is a system by which apps appear on separate desktops in much the same way they do now on OS X. That opens up the intriguing possibility that Apple either is developing, or at one time conceived of, a more OS X-like desktop interface on the iPad, with the possibility of multiple existing apps open on each, for instance.
Mac OS X Lion is Apple’s next version of its desktop and notebook computer operating system, and it borrows heavily from iOS. Even small, system-wide changes, like the fact that the direction of scrolling is now reversed in Lion, and the presence everywhere of new slider buttons to toggle preference changes, indicate that Apple has touch in mind when thinking about OS X, even if it isn’t introducing touchscreens in its Mac lineup.
Likewise, with every new iteration, iOS is becoming more sophisticated, and more able to handle the same sorts of tasks as its desktop predecessor. Printing, multitasking, opening filetypes in different associated apps; all of these are features which, though still in some ways limited, have gradually made their way into iOS.
Apple’s development trajectory with both products is clearly pointing in the same direction, and may even be on a collision course if this patent is an accurate depiction of the future, and if iOS and Mac OS continue on the road to feature parity. Mobile hardware will only get more powerful and more versatile as time goes on, meaning that one day they could compete with their desktop and notebook computing predecessors when it comes to the type of software they can run. When that day comes, Apple could definitely move to a flexible, single OS platform for all devices, to maximize cross-compatibility and cut back on in-house development costs. If things are moving in that direction, it might explain why the father — and former head — of OS X, Bertrand Serlet and Apple recently had a parting of ways.
What do you think? Is a unified iOS X platform something we’ll see in our lifetime?