The Next 10 Years of Mac OS Will Look Nothing Like the Last

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Today marks the 10th anniversary of Mac OS X, the seventh major revision of which will likely be released in June of this year. OS X has undergone major transformations over the years, and it represents a huge leap over OS 9, the operating system it replaced, but the biggest changes are yet to come.

Apple has made clear that going forward, we can expect to see a very different OS experience across all its devices, and the Mac is no exception to that rule. OS X 10.7, also known as Lion, is already available as a developer preview, so we have a pretty good idea of what we’ll see when the update gets a general release later this year. And what we’re getting is a healthy injection of iOS in our beloved Apple desktop operating system. Full-screen apps with swipe to switch; iOS-style animations, menus and navigation; app installation, organization and management taken directly from Apple’s iDevices: All of it adds up to a significant sea of change.

Of course, OS X is still OS X, with the menu bar, Finder, Dock, Software Update and many other features carrying over. But don’t expect the familiar to outweigh the new for that much longer. Apple may provide a gradual transition to avoid alienating existing customers, but iOS is the way of the future, and the numbers back that up.

iOS’ share of the overall operating system market (desktop and mobile) has already climbed to around two percent of global totals, approaching OS X’s five-percent share according to NetApplications. It seems like small potatoes when compared to Windows’ 90-percent overall share, but it actually represents considerable progress when you consider how long Microsoft completely dominated worldwide OS rankings by an even-wider margin. iOS’ growth has been so rapid compared to that of OS X, and Apple continues to ship more and more iOS devices each year, while Mac sales remain relatively flat, so Apple will go where the buying public wants to be, and that means iOS.

As if to seal the deal with a symbolic gesture, the father of Mac OS X, Bertrand Serlet, announced his departure from Apple on Wednesday. As is often the case with most high-level executive departures, it’s difficult to determine who decided it was time to move on, but I suspect Apple has decided Lion will be the last installment of OS X, and the move is intended as a clean break before the arrival of something different.

And it will be something different. Don’t expect to necessarily see menu bars, the smiling Finder icon, or even folders or a readily accessible filesystem explorer in the next iteration of Mac OS. If iOS is the model by which the next Mac OS will be cut from, look forward instead to a surface-deep computing experience that automatically handles file storage, saving and association. Expect a dramatic re-imagining (or even an outright replacement) of the concept of a windowed computing environment. Most of all, expect things to be easier, more gated, and more focused on touch-based input than we’ve ever seen before. Whether or not this is a frightening or promising vision of the future depends on how you use and think about computing, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s coming.

If you want to see the future of Mac OS, don’t open the clamshell of your MacBook Pro; pull the iPhone out of your pocket or take a peek under your iPad’s Smart Cover. There may be considerable hurdles to bridging the gap between traditional and post-PC computing, but no company is better positioned to tackle them than Apple.

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