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What Happens to OS X?

The future of Apple's computer OS grows more uncertain.


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Apple's OS X was the 'great hope' back at the start of the New Millennium. It was a Unix. Its 'Darwin' underbody was based on FreeBSD which in turn was based on BSD which in turn came about when Unix creator Ken Thompson brought code (and ideas) on a sabbatical to his alma mater after winding up things at Bell Labs.

The world was tired of Microsoft and Windows exploits. Malware that originally used social engineering gave way to new strains that relied exclusively on the haplessness of Microsoft system architects: no user assistance required.

Linus Torvalds had had his own Unix remake out for years. Sun had sold high-end Unix systems. None of them made significant inroads in the market. Then along comes Apple's OS X and suddenly it's the biggest Unix of them all.

But the technology never spread outside Cupertino. The Open Darwin project was abandoned. Apple never became an industry player as NeXT had been. Computers were cool but they were only gadgets. And the time was ripe for a new gadget.

iPod

Apple's iPod was introduced on 23 October 2001 - almost a full year before the first solid release of OS X and two years and one day before its successor. The iTunes Store came about on 29 April 2003 - two years to the day before the release of OS X 10.4 Tiger. Revenues from the iPod eclipsed those from computer sales within a few years. The device cornered over 70% of the US market and generated 48% of Apple's total revenues by January 2007 - over three years ago.

But something else happened in January 2007.

iPhone

The iPhone was a closely guarded secret for over two and one half years. Apple started looking into 'perceptive pixel' touchscreens and working with Cingular, Yahoo, and Google. They perhaps didn't go as far as HP in safeguarding the project and tracking down leaks but they were hugely successful at keeping things under wraps, this with a project that involved more corporate departments than any other in history.

Apple developed the iPhone at an estimated cost of $150 million. Only about 30 people had seen the device before it was unveiled at Macworld. Apple engineers had already developed a tablet touchscreen they felt could be used on an even smaller device. Apple built special robot-equipped testing rooms, models of human heads filled with goo to simulate brain density, and spent millions on radio frequency simulators.

No one was allowed to whisper a word of what was going on to family members - especially Apple management. Apple staff signed in as employees of Infineon when they visited Cingular. And so on. Panic, hysterics, and hair pulling were omnipresent: only a half year before the planned unveiling Jobs admitted they still didn't have a product - this despite two solid years work.

Today the iPhone dominates the industry. Not just in being the smartphone of choice but in how Apple and Steve Jobs turned the industry itself upside down and made the carriers listen to and obey the OEMs.

This gargantuan almost superhuman effort took place while Apple were also readying OS X Tiger and OS X Leopard. And today there's a new product to keep the computer OS on the back burner.

iPad

Apple's tablet was announced on 27 January 2010. Stephen Colbert used one at the Grammys three days later. Apple started taking orders on 12 March. At time of writing - in less than two months - over 1,000,000 units have already been sold.

Particularly Stephen Fry was lyrical about the device - he and Douglas Adams were the first two Macintosh users in Great Britain. 'Well bless my soul and whiskers', he wrote, instantly becoming the product's biggest fan, later getting a one hour seance with the Cupertino man himself.

'The day had special resonance. In front of his family, friends, and close colleagues stood the man who founded Apple, was fired from Apple, and came back to lead Apple to a greatness, reach, and influence that no one on earth imagined. But a year ago, it is now clear, there was a very strong possibility that Steve Jobs would not live to see 2010 and the birth of his newest baby.'

Jobs is a man who doesn't need to work. With so much Disney stock in the mattress he could jet-set around and drink bubbly and breathe through straws like the worst of them. But he doesn't. He's been passionate in the past but nothing comes close to the effort he's put into these latest mobile devices. His latest 'Thoughts on Flash' contains a message between the lines that the computer era might be now giving way to the mobile era.

Back Burner

What a shocker for some to discover Apple aren't even interested in OS X application design anymore - the annual Apple Design Awards are only open to registered (paying) iPhone developers this year.

Former Macworld and Mac OS X Hints editor Rob Griffiths won't be attending the WWDC 2010 because he and his new business partners are building 'computer' applications and Apple aren't offering much in that vein at the conference.

Stories leak that Apple 1) want to build a wall around the OS X garden; alternatively 2) just let it fall into ruin. All the pieces needed to build the wall are already in place, and people in Cupertino have definitely contemplated such a future, but odds are they just don't want to bother.

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