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7 for 7: A Third OS for the Apple Tablet?

This is the second in a series of 7 posts in the 7 days prior to Apple’s January 27 media event in which I explore various possibilities for an Apple Tablet and other potential announcements.

If you are returning from some sort of Internet exile, you might just be hearing that Apple is expected to announce a new tablet computer at an event in Cupertino on January 27. All we know for certain is that they are holding an event to showcase their “latest creation.” But there is an incredible amount of rumor and speculation about the company and the device that it is hard to ignore. I, for one, am obsessed, so I’m devoting an entire week to examining the possibilities.

Among the many questions about an Apple tablet are what software it will run, and what the user experience will be like. Before we dive into the specifics of what a tablet might offer, lets consider some history and the current state of Apple device operating systems.

History of the Apple OS

Apple first introduced Mac OS X in 2001 (though a server version was released earlier) after modifying the NeXT Computer operating system it had purchased in early 1999. Later in 2001, Apple introduced the iPod, which ran a different operating system powered in part by software from a company called Pixo, whose team included several former Apple Newton engineers. The Apple TV, running a device-specific variant of Mac OS X, shipped in March 2007, and the iPhone–also running a device-specific variant of Mac OS X–went on sale in June of the same year. Apple has released updates for all operating systems through software update and new devices, and major new versions of Mac OS X via box purchases. Major iPhone software updates are roughly on an annual release cycle, while major Mac OS X updates were once released on a similar schedule, but that has slowed in recent years.

Apple’s Snow Leopard version of Mac OS X was released in August 2009, and was touted by Apple as a performance update with few new features. My installations of Snow Leopard saved on average about 20GB of hard drive space, and seemed to make my computers run faster. But while these changes were great for my Macs, most desktop and laptop computers had plenty of memory and storage to run Mac OS X before Snow Leopard was introduced. The same improvements, however, would make a huge difference for devices like the iPhone and Apple TV, where memory and storage are more constrained and precious, and fixed for a particular model.

It is now a misnomer to refer to the operating system as “Mac OS X,” which is really just the version that runs on the Macintosh line of computers. “OS X,” however, runs on Macs as well as iPhones and Apple TVs. So all of Apple’s current devices, except non-touch iPods (and maybe those!), run OS X: Mac OS X, iPhone OS X, and Apple TV OS X (iSlate OS X?). Of course there are differences, most obviously in user interface and input method: keyboard and mouse for the Mac, touch for the iPhone, and remote control for Apple TV. Apple excels at creating user interfaces that are appropriate for these different input methods and other parameters such as viewing distance. One of the great things about OS X is its modularity: variants can rather easily be optimized for their target devices.

Its hard to imagine a scenario in which the Apple tablet won’t run OS X. But which OS X? The same version used in desktop and laptops, or the one used for iPhones? After all, won’t the tablet simply be a big iPod touch? Or will it be another operating system altogether?

Tablet OS X

The iPhone OS has a touch interface, as the tablet most certainly will, and is thus the most likely of the existing operating systems to be used in the new device. But iPhone apps–those built by Apple and third-party developers–are specifically designed to run on the iPhone’s 480×320 pixel resolution. Ideally, app developers won’t have to create 2 versions of their apps: one for the iPhone and one for the tablet. Which means other, more low-level changes to the iPhone OS would be required. Apps will need a form of UI intelligence to recognize which device it is being displayed on, then render a version appropriate for that device.

The tablet could run iPhone apps inside smaller windows, turning current iPhone apps into something like Dashboard widgets, but this doesn’t strike me as very elegant–or very Apple-like. Indeed, there is some evidence that a small group of select app developers has been asked to create versions of their apps for a larger resolution display, but we don’t know if these are new, single versions that work on both screen sizes, or if they are new, secondary versions of the apps that run only on the larger screen.

The team working on the Apple tablet likely began creating the user experience for the new device with a blank sheet of paper. Simply trying to scale the iPhone interface would be too limiting, and wouldn’t result in the optimum user experience. Yet there is a clear business need to support the app development community and leverage to tremendous success of the iTunes App Store. There just aren’t any easy answers to this problem.

Ultimately, I expect Apple to create a third operating system (after Mac and iPhone, not including Apple TV or iPod since they don’t support app development) for the new tablet. It will be based on OS X, but will have an entirely new user interface that is optimized for the screen size and purpose of the device. Apple’s developer tools will also be updated to include support for the new tablet, including a Mac-based emulator, allowing developers to use XCode, Interface Builder and other tools to support all of Apple’s product lines. The iPhone OS will be updated to support new app parameters so that apps can be easily updated to run on both devices. Perhaps on the 27th but likely later, the Apple TV will get a similar update to support the iTunes App Store.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Rumored Apple Tablet: Opportunities Too Big to Ignore

6 Responses to “7 for 7: A Third OS for the Apple Tablet?”

  1. def a new[ish] UI based on underlying OS X internals.

    I’m thinking also of built-in apps [which have sold so many Macs], e.g., Multi-touch iLife ‘010, tho’ there’s been more spec about an iWork version. Just seems like a family resemblance/marketing natural.

  2. D, That is exactly the point of Apple’s mobile strategy — a single OS with different presentation layers. Certainly, parts are missing and modified, but the management of the development should be exponentially easier than something like Windows Mobile. I suspect that the refinement of the OS with Snow Leopard had lots to do with what will evolve.

    I will say, that the ideas surrounding the iTablet interface are interesting so far, but that my take is substantially different for a couple of reasons. I have been playing with tablets since the Newton from an education (k-8) perspective. Covey Tablet Planner was something I very much liked, and continually had open. Wave is a possible refinement of those methods that would create a means to use communication — ala MotoBlur — as the primary interface.

    It will be fascinating to watch.

  3. Steve G.

    “Ideally, app developers won’t have to create 2 versions of their apps: one for the iPhone and one for the tablet. Which means other, more low-level changes to the iPhone OS would be required. Apps will need a form of UI intelligence to recognize which device it is being displayed on, then render a version appropriate for that device.”

    Apple already has a patent application pending for resolution independent UI. This was filed in July 2006 and is still being examined by the USPTO.

    • Directed at the original author:

      How do you think developers deal with iPhone portrait/landscape changes? Applications can already detect the orientation and adjust themselves appropriately. Adding another set of constants that correspond to the tablet would be trivial.

      Devs can already swap NIB files on the fly, and you can already position interface elements well beyond the bounds of the iPhone display (visible in scrolling regions, or just used for offscreen rendering).

      Short story is – beyond an updated simulator, the changes needed to update Xcode to be usable for a tablet-style development are pretty superficial.

      (And OS X has a resolution independent UI, but it’s largely clunky. You can turn on per-app or global scaling pretty easily.)

  4. dgalbraith

    The iPhone OS is actually the same as OSX under the hood, they are the same operating system with different bits enabled.

    Over time everything will move to the iPhone style implementation but there will be tweaks for tablet or iPhone. In other words there won’t be 3 OSs but 1.