Half Full Glass

Some people think Apple will eventually “dumb down” OS X and make it a “more casual” platform not suited for power users.

I disagree.

I covered this recurring theme in a section of my Mountain Lion review:

I think the Mac power user will be just fine using Mountain Lion. In practical terms, Mountain Lion’s new features and design choices haven’t hindered my ability to install the apps I want, run macros to automate tedious tasks, or fly through applications using keyboard shortcuts. I prefer Scrivener to Apple’s Notes app, I rely on Keyboard Maestro to be more efficient, and I keep my notes in Dropbox rather than iCloud. On the other hand, I can jot down a quick todo in Reminders knowing instantly that it will “just work”, and I can pick up any conversation I was having on my iPhone thanks to Messages on my Mac. Making the entire operating system more cohesive and refined hasn’t diminished the relevance and utility of third-party software on my Mac; if anything, it’s made the key apps and functionalities I rely on better.

The argument usually goes something like this: iOS is so successful, Apple will eventually make Macs more like it. Plus, Gatekeeper and Sandboxing are signs that this will happen.

Usually, this piece by Rands in Repose is cited as a somewhat obvious confirmation to the fact that Apple is not afraid of “cannibalizing itself”.

This argument needs to be deconstructed on multiple levels.

Firstly, while Someone Is Coming To Eat You is a great piece, it doesn’t necessarily apply to every aspect of life and business, let alone people and companies. Sometimes you have to “kill” your own creations to make room for new ones, but other times the truth of facts is more nuanced. Change for change’s sake is also wrong.

Apple isn’t stupid. They know that Macs and iOS devices are solid platforms, successful in their own ways. Macs are used by writers, engineers, architects, fashion and graphic designers – you name it. Macs allow Apple to make a profit off computers, they expand the userbase, and – an often abused expression – they “lock you into an ecosystem”.

Again, from my Mountain Lion review:

To sell more Macs, Apple knows it has to focus on building a better experience because it’s not just about the hardware — if it were, people would be buying more specced-out Windows PCs or assembling their own Linux boxes. Hence, Mountain Lion, and its replication of much of the iOS experience. By making it easier to move between iOS devices and the Mac, Apple’s message is clear: different devices serve different purposes, but the core experience will be the same, and it will free you from worrying about data loss and dealing with unintuitive metaphors.

Some people fail to understand that making things more familiar across the board doesn’t mean we’re doomed.

If the “Why would Apple change OS X?” isn’t enough as a question, let’s proceed down to Level 2 and see how it makes sense as a fact.

Changes introduced in OS X include Gatekeeper and Sandboxing. These technologies are, according to Apple, aimed at making Macs more secure. Sandboxing has, unfortunately, caused some expected and unsurprising side effects: some apps could no longer be accepeted into the Sandbox of the Mac App Store because they were using no-no technologies and features. Because of Gatekeeper, however, they can still be installed and used like before.

Seemingly unrelated, Sandboxing and Gatekeeper are actually intertwined: do you want to create an app for Macs? There’s the Mac App Store, but Apple wants your app to rely on Sandboxing. Can you work inside the Sandbox? If the answer is no, then there’s Gatekeeper, a technology that lets users install apps from the Mac App Store and trusted developers. And the default setting for newly installed Mountain Lion machines is “both”.

The facts prove that Apple’s rumored crusade towards the dumb-ification of OS X are, at least for 2011 and 2012, material we ought to save for a future Myths and Anthologies: Doomed OS X Edition. I can still run my Alfred, Hazel, Keyboard Maestro, ImageOptim, Python programs and AppleScripts on OS X. I don’t see this changing any time soon for the reasons mentioned above.

To me, OS X is just as powerful as it was last year and two years ago and all the way back to when I bought my first Mac. If anything, third-party developers have enriched the platform with powerful apps. On its end, Apple brought consistency and familiarity that makes working with iOS devices and Macs easier and more intuitive.

The fact that Apple is aiming for iOS and OS X to be equally consistent and familiar shouldn’t trick us into thinking the Mac is becoming an iOS device with a keyboard.

But here’s the part most people don’t consider: if this ever changes, if Apple will really “lock down the Mac” and hinder my productivity in meaningful ways, I’ll just stop using OS X. It will be painful, and I will be furious about Apple’s decision, but if OS X Doomsday will ever be upon us, I will make myself a Linux convert before Tim Cook can bestow his holy Sandbox judgement on me.

No one ever died from switching operating systems.

My last point – let’s call it Level 3 – is about iOS devices. Just because Apple engineers have, until now, ignored the majority of requests from “iOS power users” doesn’t mean they haven’t been listening. It doesn’t mean things can’t change, and it doesn’t mean things can’t change quickly. In just five months, the App Store’s curation has dramatically increased. Apple is now okay with letting you run Python interpreters powered by URL schemes. Developers can create alternative email clients and browsers.

Jean-Louis Gassée summed up Apple’s opportunity quite nicely in the latest Monday Note:

Now that all OS X and iOS software is under one hat, Craig Federighi‘s, perhaps we can expect these workflow speed bumps to be ironed out. Multiple concurrent applications, a document store that’s common to all apps… This is Apple’s opportunity: Stick to its guns, keep laptops and tablets clearly distinct, but make iPads easier to love by business users. The comparison between a worst-of-both-worlds Surface hybrid and the iPad would be no contest. iPad mini for media consumption, everywhere; iPad for business and everything else.

Changes on the horizon depict a promise land of more automation and inter-app communication for iOS power users. XPC alone – a feature developers are excited about – could single-handedly revolutionize the way we think of working with third-party apps on iOS. A Siri API could let developers access a fourth interface. iOS’ text selection and copy popup menu, first introduced with iPhone OS 3, could use a overhaul aimed at enabling a Services-like system-wide functionality.

With all these APIs and processes working together and exchanging data and workflows behind the scenes, imagine a possible Automator for iOS, rebuilt from the ground-up to leverage apps. You’ve taken a photo with the Camera? Here’s a one-tap workflow to let the Dropbox app upload it with your settings, in the background, automatically, to the folder you want.

The possibilities for a new iOS for power users are variegate and unique. But work needs to be done. iOS is now mature enough to take another leap for the next five years and focus on areas that have been ignored and left unexplored. The way I see it, Apple’s ecosystem will unify under iCloud but develop in a threefold nature depending on the user’s context: desktop, mobile, and portable computing.

More importantly, I’m a strong believer that familiarity and consistency between OS X and iOS will increase, but they won’t take away the unique traits that make these platforms suitable for different contexts, for different users.

I’m optimistic.