Will iOS and macOS continue individually? Or will they merge into ‘AppleOS’?

Some folks disagree -- including Apple CEO Tim Cook, but I think that in time, macOS and iOS will merge into one operating system. I’ve expressed this opinion in the past, but a new Macworld column by Jason Snell, “iOS and macOS: What does the future hold?” inspired me to bring the subject up again.

Jason himself was inspired by some tweets by Steve Troughton-Smith with linksto a Ars Technica story about Fuschia, Google’s next-generation operating system project.

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Troughton-Smith wrote: “We’re far enough into the age of mobile that the big players are designing the OSes that’ll follow it-surprised if Apple isn’t doing same. It’s not so crazy to think that Apple would want to replace both iOS and macOS with something new and more unified. Post-XNU [the Kernel that runs iOS and macOS], post-BSD [Unix, the underpinnings of iOS and macOS].”

Jason points out that Apple has three options: continue developing macOS and iOS separately (leaving aside the iOS derivatives that run the Apple Watch, Apple TV, and HomePod); evolve iOS into a app suitable for desktops and laptops, then phase out macOS; or continue updating iOS and macOS annually, but pull resources off of those projects and instead begin building the foundations for an entirely new operating system, one that can run devices as small as an Apple Watch (or AirPods?) or as large as a 27-inch iMac or a Mac Pro. 

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Jason thinks iOS will come to all sorts of different devices in the future, but that macOS will live on, gaining new features “but not with any urgency.” 

In a 2014 readwrite article, journalist Dave Smith predicted that the rumored (at the time) iPad Pro would be the first step in the merging of macOS and iOS. I think he was correct in his premise, if not in some of the specifics. 

Smith said that developers and other experts readwrite had spoken to were intrigued by the notion of a hybrid device that offers the best of the company's desktop and mobile experiences. Some believed the device would be a large iPad with a built-in keyboard aimed at professionals that can handle applications built for both iOS and macOS, and have the ability to switch between touchscreen and keyboard input. Or perhaps it’s a “MacPad” hybrid device.

Though macOS and iOS (which is actually a mobile version of macOS) share technical roots, Apple has generally developed them separately, though the two operating systems are increasingly borrowing features from one another. Still, an iPad app won’t run on a Mac, and a Mac app won't run on an iPad. 

Smith said there are two ways an iOS/macOS product such as an iPad Pro could work: 

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Apple merges its two operating systems, which would force Apple engineers and iOS and Mac developers to completely rewrite their software for a multitouch-friendly version of macOS.

Apple builds a product that can dynamically switch between iOS and macOS with the tap of an icon. 

Smith thinks the second option is the most likely to prevent developers from having to completely rewrite their software for a merged OS. However, I don't think Apple wants users to have to swap back and forth between macOS and iOS. It goes against the company's penchant for simplicity.

It's possible that Apple could implement a system where iOS apps could run "inside" macOS or, less likely, that macOS apps could run "inside" iOS. After all, when Mac OS X debuted, it had a "Classic" environment, a hardware/software abstraction layer that allowed Mac OS 9 apps to run on Mac OS X. 

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Classic was part of Apple's strategy to replace the traditional Mac operating system (versions 9 and below) with Mac OS X as the standard operating system used by Macs by eliminating the need to use the older OS directly. Perhapsthe same strategy could be applied to iOS/macOS, but this seems kludgy and inelegant.

I do think the two operating systems will merge somewhere down the road (and I mean years down the road, not months) into, simply,"AppleOS." The trick for Apple will be to make AppleOS as easy for consumers and newbies as iOS currently is, while still offering features needed by power users and creative professionals. 

AppleOS would be an operating system that takes the best of iOS and macOS but ditches some of their features; Troughton-Smith suggests replacing the XNU kernel and BSD unix underpinnings. This new, single operating system would be the basis of all future Apple products, and the distinction between the Mac and iOS would disappear.

Apple will have to proceed with caution. Microsoft tried an “all things to all people” approach with Windows 8 — and that didn’t work out too well. Then again, Apple excels in successfully tackling products/categories that other companies have botched.

So merging the two operating systems at some point — though that could still be years down the road — is likely. A few years ago, Jefferies & Company analyst Peter Misek said that combining OS X and iOS will lead to “synergies,” including better gross margins and an ease in licensing of content. In particular, Apple customers would be able to then experience TV shows and movies and such, stored in iCloud across desktops, laptops, phones, tablets, an Apple TV, and get the same licensed content.

(By the way, the graphics in this article are fanciful mock-ups of an “AppleOS.”)