With the developer previews of OS X 10.7 being rolled out by Apple, we’re beginning to see new features in additions to those features that Steve Jobs had demoed in a prior Apple keynote. Those features take the best-in-class user experience designs of Apple’s experience in mobile from iOS on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, and merge those features with those from Apple’s more powerful OS X desktop operating system. What we’re seeing could result in a tablet-fied version of OS X as Apple is making bigger strides and bigger pushes into larger icons for its GUI, implementing advanced multi-tasking and auto-save features from mobile, and adding better task management.
History of the OS X Tablet Movement
Prior to the consumer-centric iPad was released, tablet-crazed users who were obsessed with OS X’s production capabilities created their own hacked systems. As Apple’s desktop OS has been used and popularized with designers, production managers, graphics artists, video editors, sound mixers, and other creative professionals, a market for an OS X-powered tablet emerged and was fulfilled by Axiotron with its ModBook, which essentially is a modified MacBook or MacBook Pro with its screen and keyboard ripped off and replaced with a digitizer LCD screen for pen-input. Those systems were not only bulky as a tablet–MacBook Pros are meant to be used on tabletops and laps, not held in your arms–but were expensive and did not provide a user experience that’s built on touch as it’s the same OS X environment that’s now being accessed via a keyboard and mouse–or multi-touch trackpad.
Enter the iPad
When Apple released its iPad tablet, many were hoping for a full-blown OS X experience and later leaks showed that the device would instead run the iOS operating system ported from the iPhone. Given Apple’s experience with the App Store, and since the App Store provided a monetary stream for Apple in the form of a 30% commission from developers, the ease of getting apps onto a mobile OS-powered tablet made users easy. The hype, low entry price point of $500 for an Apple product, and buzz behind the iPad didn’t hurt sales either. However, since the iPad has been released, chatter of a full OS X tablet has subsided, at least for now.
OS X 10.7 Lion
My esteemed colleague Josh Smith had reported on sister site Notebooks.com of some of the new features of OS X Lion, and it seems like the next-generation OS X operating system is taking many design and user experience cues from the iPad and iPhone, focusing on app management, larger graphics icons rather than text-based icons, and various subtle stylings that show that Apple is beginning to blend its desktop and mobile operating systems together. That blend leads me to question where OS X is headed and if a future OS X may lend itself to a Mac-based tablet that provides the desktop-class functionality of OS X with the a touchscreen and eschews the mouse and keyboard input paradigms. Perhaps a Mac Tablet Pro? A Mac Tablet Air? A Mac-Let?
Here are some of the tablet-esque features that are noteworthy:
Mac App Store
Apple’s pushing its over-the-air, always up-to-date apps purchased via the App Store model onto the desktop. For now, it looks like sales are slow as most consumers still don’t know about an App Store model on a desktop, but with a tablet, and especially right now with the MacBook Air, the lack of an optical drive means more reliance on the Internet to acquire content. We’ve already seen how big the App Store has grown for the iPhone and iPad, and if positioned with a professional-grade tablet with a desktop OS X, the Mac App Store can be paving the way for this dream.
Like the way apps are arranged on iOS’s homescreen, Launchpad brings an app-centric UI with very large icons–dare I say touchable? Not only does this highlight apps, like those purchased from the Mac App Store, Launchpad also brings a clean design with flickable screens. Gone are nasty scroll bars, tiny app icons with cluttered text names, and in is a nice way to see all your apps.
Full Screen Apps
With full screen apps, Apple is placing more emphasis on what’s going on inside the app and how the user interacts with the app, rather than the distractions behind task bars, text menus, and other desktop clutter. The company had tried it before on its consumer-grade office productivity suite, and those apps have all migrated to the iPad as well. Perhaps Pages, Numbers, and Keynote will pave way for the entire OS X system next to migrate to a tablet.
Air Drop for File Transfers
To keep it simple for users to manage their files on their Mac OS X tablet and their Mac notebook or desktop system, Air Drop, which allows users to drag and drop to different Macs, like a virtual drive, will allow you to take what you need with you, which would be highly useful for users who use a Mac OS X tablet when mobile.
Auto Resuming Saves the Day
With long battery run times and instant on capabilities demonstrated on Apple’s MacBook Air, the software- and Mac-maker has demonstrated that it could provide rapid start ups, useful for a tablet, on a full desktop OS. Now with auto resume, OS X Lion “brings your apps back exactly how you left them when you restart your Mac or quit and relaunch an app.” That sounds similar to how the iPad’s iOS handles task management and could be an indication that OS X’s new task management through Resume can extend battery life in between charges, which would of course be a bonus for an OS X Pad. On iOS, apps don’t really exit, but get suspended until a user re-opens them and resumes them. Moreover, as most third-party apps don’t run actively in the background in this suspended state, it also helps to extend battery time. To allow longer battery with the flexibility of an always running app, Apple approached multi-tasking with push notifications as it would allow apps, like instant messenger apps, to act like they are running in the background.
Notably present from Apple’s iPad is widgets. With Android 3.0 Honeycomb’s desktop providing Android tablets like the Xoom with previews of app contents–like mail in Gmail–without having to open the app. Mission Control could potentially deliver the same sort of versatility and utility while maintaining Apple’s clean looks of Launchpad. According to the company, Mission Control is “the unification of Dashboard, Expose and Spaces is now Mission control which provides a birds eye view of all your running apps, grouped by application type.”
Mail, Calendar, and Contacts Redesigned
On OS X 10.7 Lion, native apps like Mail, Calendar, and Contacts have been re-designed to support the look of those apps on the iPad. We’ve already seen Apple’s office suite being ported from OS X to iOS, and now the native apps appear to be going from iOS to OS X. The design of those apps on the iPad was to help support a tablet UI and be optimized for touch. With those re-designed apps now showing up on OS X Lion, Apple may have broader intent than to begin to merge the aesthetics of iOS and OS X, which may include an OS X tablet.
Multi-Touch Gestures Follow iOS Lead
In addition to new multi-touch gestures, Apple is inverting its two-finger scrolling gesture on Mac OS X 10.7 Lion to reflect the scrolling gesture on the iPad. I had written on Notebooks.com:
With Lion, the default scrolling motion to scroll down a long page, like a Web page, is to use two fingers on the multi-touch trackpad and flick up. This gesture is akin to users actually pushing the page up to view the hidden contents below. The older scrolling gesture to scroll down a long page is to use two fingers and swipe downwards, a movement that aligns with the direction of scrolling.
If users prefer the older system, they can definitely revert back to the older gestures, but developers who got an early preview of OS X 10.7 Lion noticed the change in scrolling behavior.
A Tablet in the Future?
For now, Apple will probably experiment more with the iPad. The tablet market, although quickly growing, is still a nascent market in terms of consumer mindshare. Although Microsoft had worked on that market with its Tablet PCs, which ran the full Windows OS, for over a decade now, it did not catch on until the iPad debuted and captured consumer attention. However, given that Apple has a professional and consumer line in all of its major hardware and software line–Final Cut Pro and iMovie, Mac Pro and iMac, MacBook Pro and MacBook–it could evolve its tablet offering into a Pro and a consumer version in the future. When and if that happens will be unclear, but Apple is showing signs that it is willing to apply lessons learned from robust professional systems into consumer systems and vice versa. The most recent result of this melding is with the MacBook Air, which combines the iPad and the MacBook Pro together. Right now, with more GUI DNA on OS X Lion, we can dream of a day when a Mac Pad Pro gets released.