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OS XI

The Mac’s current operating system, Mac OS X, has been quite successful since its introduction about 10 years ago. It has powered a wide range of Mac computers, from single core G3 PowerPC machines all the way up to modern 12 core Intel machines. And iOS, a variation of Mac OS X (well not technically, but based on the same core technology at least), has been powering the iPhone and iPad for years too.

But while Mac OS X is far more reliable and capable than the systems which preceded it, the way that users interact with it isn’t that much different. As Mac OS X (now OS X) becomes more mature it’s natural to wonder what will come next. What will Apple give us in OS XI?

I think I see where they are going. A conspicuous trend with the latest iteration of the system, Mountain Lion, has been to split bigger programs into smaller, single function apps. For example Mail no longer handles notes or RSS feeds, and iCal doesn’t handle reminders any more. Other programs perform these functions instead, so instead of a few big programs there are now many small ones.

This can be convenient because it gives the user the ability to choose which program to use for a single function instead of being locked in to a single program like Microsoft’s Outlook which does email, calendars, notes, address books, and reminders. Because the programs know how to communicate with each other most of the convenience and interoperability of a single big program is maintained. And several smaller programs are generally easier to use, more reliable, and faster than one big program which tries to do everything.

But there are disadvantages as well. For example, it can be inconvenient to swap between programs to get to different functions.

So what is the answer? I think Apple are heading towards component software in a similar way to what they tried to do with OpenDoc back in the 90s. With OpenDoc the user could create his own program by mixing small components. The computer interface was centered around the document and whatever software components were required could be used to create a single complex document which might need to be assembled from many smaller parts in a conventional system.

At the time the operating system and hardware weren’t really up to the task and OpenDoc failed, but what about now?

The object architecture of OS X is a natural fit for this approach. Already there are system components, such as Webkit (the Mac’s built-in web engine) which can be used by programmers. Why not extend that type of function at a higher level so that users can use higher level components to make their own programs?

When I create web databases and apps I usually have a web browser, a text editing program, a PDF viewer for documentation, and a graphics program open. I would like to create my own web projects using a tool I design by mixing my favourite apps which have those abilities. Not only would the whole thing run inside a single window but all the components could freely exchange information. As I types the name of a PHP function, for example, the PDF program would show the syntax for that function.

Some of this functionality is already available in monolithic tools but I already have a text editor and other programs I want to use. Why can’t I link up my existing programs to make them work together more smoothly?

I discussed this idea a few years back with a fairly senior Apple engineer and he seemed skeptical so maybe there are good reasons it can’t be done, or maybe Apple just think it’s a bad idea from a user perspective. Maybe they don’t want their users to have too much control. That certainly seems to be the case superficially.

But that is where I think OS XI should go. Eventually I would like only one app on my whole computer which I created by mixing components I like to use. It’s quite a neat idea and if Apple want to use it in a future OS, hey they can have it for free! I just want to be able to create that sort of environment on my next Mac (and iPhone and iPad).

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