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Imagining a Cloud-Based Future for Mac OS X

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Apple (s aapl) has recently been awarded a patent (via AppleInsider) for “administering and maintaining a network-booted operating system.” This could point to the development of a cloud-based Mac OS X. If it comes to pass, what would a cloud-based OS X actually look like and how will it work?

I imagine that using a cloud-based Mac OS X would, on the face of it, be much like using Mac OS X today; a user would boot their device, log-in to their user account and work or play as normal. The great difference, of course, is that rather than being read from the device’s local storage, the OS would be streamed to the device over the Internet. In a way, the concept resembles the early days of computing, when people used terminals that were often only smart enough to communicate with a single “mainframe” computer — where all the real work was done.

A modern, cloud-based OS X would likely be able to assess the device used at login and deliver the most appropriate subset of functionality for that machine. So, in this scenario, a MacBook Pro might get a richer array of functionality than, say, a more lightweight tablet device.

Delivering the rich functionality of an entire operating system over the Internet is only the first step; a user’s applications and personal data would also need to be made available, too. For this to work swiftly enough for the data streaming to go unnoticed, the beefy legacy applications we use today will need to be re-architected into lightweight alternatives with much smaller footprints — for example, imagine a re-jiggered iPhoto that, when loaded over-the-air to a low-powered tablet device, more closely resembles today’s iOS Photos app. For any of this to work properly, Apple would likely need a truly colossal, state-of-the-art data center to power it all. Why, what do we have here?

Closer Than You Might Think

Now, this might all sounds utterly ludicrous, but consider; Apple’s iOS devices and App Store ecosystem have, for the last few years, steadily trained users to expect at least this much;

  1. Great software is either free or inexpensive
  2. Software and services are easy to access (or acquire, install and update)
  3. The best tablets and cellphones are designed to offer exceptional portability and simplicity
  4. The very best portable devices turn on instantly and offer consistently good battery life

Apple’s MacBook line has been gradually moving to meet these expectations, with improved battery life, faster flash-based memory/storage for very rapid boot times and, with tomorrow’s launch of the Mac App Store, a seamless and user-friendly software discovery and management system. It’s only a matter of time until even the MacBook Pro and iMac lose their optical drives altogether, with USB and Wi-Fi networks filling the gap until even USB is replaced.

A Natural Next Step

None of this is as far-fetched as it sounds. In fact, it seems inevitable; a cloud-based OS perfectly delivers on Apple’s age-old, Jobs-inspired philosophy of ubiquitous minimalism, simplicity and interoperability across everything the company creates.

Users will no longer need to upgrade their operating system — heck, users won’t even need to know what operating system they’re running. OS updates will be pushed to their devices quietly, automatically, alongside app updates, and could be free or ad-supported.

A leaner, lighter, cloud-based software ecosystem will enable Apple to ditch mechanical hard drives entirely, making for lighter, thinner computers. More importantly, those future machines will be cheaper, too, and therefore far more disposable than a typical Apple notebook is today. The math is easy; it’s a far more lucrative proposition for Apple to try to achieve the same upgrade cycle it has with the iPhone (and potentially the iPad, too) in which customers are encouraged to buy (at least) one $499 device annually, rather than one $999 MacBook once every half-decade.

Problems Still Exist

Is a cloud-based OS X guaranteed? It is, in my opinion, but then, I’ve no idea how (or if) Apple can overcome some of the more chewy problems that stand in the way of a purely cloud-based future. For instance, in a world where high-speed Internet connectivity is still very much limited to wealthy developed countries, widespread technical disparity would invariably be the outcome, leaving entire developing markets effectively inaccessible to Apple.

Ultimately however, I think the signs are there that Apple is — gradually — moving ever more into the cloud. Jobs already redefined Apple as a “mobile company” (and as if to prove the point, last year the iPhone took the crown as Apple’s biggest money-maker). Apple knows the future lies in thin, light and cloud-connected devices. A cloud-based OS X is a natural progression of that future.

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12 Responses to “Imagining a Cloud-Based Future for Mac OS X”

  1. Apple has had how many years to get mobile me working properly and consistently and they still have major problems.

    On a past history basis Apple can’t be trusted to preserve the integrity of your data. Data gets lost or corrupted and you are up the creek.

    I have to say that if OSX were to change in this way, I would have to say good-bye to apple.

  2. Nick Scott

    I disagree. I think a local OS and apps are staying just like that. However, content, files, and user data for these local apps is what I think is moving to the cloud. Like MobileMe backs up and keeps in sync your calendars, contacts, email, soon to be complete photo and music collection. Sure web apps can be used when you get to a computer to log in to use them, but a personal
    device should still be able to operate for a user even when the Internet is not available.

  3. Remember when Scott McNealy said, “The network is the computer”? Same concept. And my reaction was the same, then, as it is now: “Surely, you must be joking.” Even now, I frequently go places where there is no network (wired, wireless, or otherwise).

  4. Ian Kemmish

    You never used a discless node on NFS, did you? (Technology which, by the way, predates this patent by a good decade!)

    When the network goes down, the client app not only hangs, it hangs inside the kernel so that you can’t kill the app and use your computer for other things. You can’t even switch windows. You just have to wait until the network comes back.

    When the server goes down, this happens on every client computer at once.

    As usual, there are excellent reasons this technology never caught on.

  5. Uh. SOME users don’t know what OS they’re running. Those of us using Macs to power professional production apps like those made by Adobe and Avid do know, *must* know all the gory details. Forcing an OS update on us would shut us down. Or can you imagine several $100/hr people mixing a movie soundtrack and suddenly there are network issues? Not gonna happen.

  6. Hamranhansenhansen

    In NetBoot, the OS doesn’t stream … a disk image is downloaded by the firmware and the Mac boots from that. NetBoot goes back to before Mac OS X. This patent is about how you manage NetBooted devices only.

    We already have what you are describing. Users already don’t know what OS version they run. Updates are already pushed to them over the Internet (Mac OS v10.6.6 is rumored to ship tomorrow). It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Mac OS v10.7 Lion show up in Mac App Store for $29 and get pushed down the same pipe as v10.6.6. As usual, the updated components would be downloaded and put into place and the system restarted.

  7. Andrei Timoshenko

    Connectedness is much more beneficial than centralisation. Indeed, as our experience with pretty much every other bit of infrastructure shows, distributed meshes are far more resilient, responsive, flexible, and conducive to innovation than centralised hub/spoke or server/client models. This is the biggest problem with the concept of pure cloud computing, and I actually find quite ironic that some people are becoming simultaneously about, say, cloud computing and smart grids, which rely on opposing principles of network design.

    As such, I would much rather see an OS running transparently across a dynamically altering mix of my current machine in use, my other machines (e.g. my iPhone pushing some computationally heavy stuff to my iMac), and Apple’s server farms, than see an OS that runs exclusively on any one of those platforms. In fact, some sort of ‘user proximity’ principle should probably be used for guidance – for any given function, data should be processed and stored as close to the user as possible…

    On a side note, human irrationality makes pulled updates superior to pushed updates – for instance, many people excitedly waiting for the 10.6.6 point update would also find themselves quite miffed to log on to Facebook one morning and find that the site’s UI has been redone again.

  8. Several flaws with this concept. First being, who needs this anytime soon?

    1) Who will decide when I get my OS pushed updates to me?
    2) How will I access data without connection to the internet? Power down, remote location, world fallout?
    3) I agree with PD, Apple needs to get Mobile Me done correctly first.

    I love Apple software and hardware but I do not want them telling me which version of software they will push to me.

    Too much stuff is going to this ‘cloud’ and when the cloud fails and it rains hard, then we shall realize again why our stuff is safer with us than from us.

  9. Sounds nice but Apple can’t even get MobileMe into a satisfactory state, and my Magic Mouse has the hardest time staying connected to my Mac Mini, so how will they accomplish something like booting an operating system reliably? Not any time soon, that’s for sure.

  10. I would have a hard time believing this could work efficiently. Where I work we use thin clients, nothing more than terminals, that access all applications from a central server. It works ok, but when the network has glitches, it’s bad. Also what you have available is limited to what is on the server, no choice, no customization.

  11. Michael

    No, because sometimes you can’t rely on your network. I have problems now and then with my connection and i wouldn’t be able to continue my work without the proper apps.

    yes by the name of technology it’s possible. but before that happens our networks should be stable and secure first.