OS X Lion, Apple's newest version of the Mac operating system, launching today, represents a first effort at blending Apple's mobile platform made popular by the ubiquitous iPhone with that of the desktop. Several features found in Lion seem inspired by the mobile experience, from full-screen apps to multi-touch gestures, both now commonplace on mobile devices.
But can the mobile and desktop platforms ever truly merge? That's a question that neither Apple nor its competitors have yet to answer.
At just $29.99, OS X Lion is a "no-brainer" upgrade for the majority of Mac users - an install base that is rapidly growing thanks to increases in Mac shipments worldwide. Yesterday, Apple reported 3.95 million Macs sold during the past quarter, up 14% from the same quarter last year. In certain markets, those increases are dramatic. For example, in Asia, Mac shipments were up 69.4% year-over-year, IDC recently noted. And figures from Gartner put Apple in the #3 spot here in the U.S., with nearly 11% of the PC market share by vendor.
With Apple's growing influence, not just on mobile, but also on desktop, it will be looked to as a leader in the post-PC marketplace, hopefully answering these questions:
How will mobile converge with the desktop? Will it ever fully do so? Should it?
Inspired by iOS
Apple's introduction of OS X Lion hints at some of the company's ideas on this front, pulling in obvious inspiration from its mobile operating system, iOS. With Lion, new multi-touch gestures, including the now familiar pinch, tap to zoom and multi-finger scroll will be supported by way of the Mac's Touchpad.
Some apps will run in a "full screen" mode, where the standard menu system and scrollbars disappear from view.
A "Mission Control" interface will now combine the ideas of the Dashboard, Exposé and Spaces into one new feature which lets you see everything running on your Mac at a glance. While not a feature of iOS in particular, its counterpart "Launchpad," however, is. While Mission Control is more reminiscent of the card stacks in HP's webOS, Launchpad is clearly the iOS homescreen concept, built for the Mac. With a simple click of the new LaunchPad icon, all your open windows fade and your apps are on display in rows and columns, even grouped in iOS-like folders, if you choose.
Another more direct port from iOS is the Mac App Store, which won't just be fully integrated, but will also include several iOS-like options for apps, including in-app purchases, push notifications, automatic/over-the-air updates, and "sandboxing," a security feature that prevents one app crash from affecting other running applications.
Finally, Mac OS X Lion will also be integrated with Apple's new iCloud service, which means syncing Pages, Keynotes and Numbers documents to other Apple devices, as well as photos from iPhoto.
Other new features, like "Resume," "Auto Save," "Versions," "Air Drop" and enhancements to the Mail app are also great upgrades, but not necessarily ideas borrowed from the mobile platform.
Will the Desktop Ever Merge with Mobile?
Apple isn't the only company thinking about the future of the desktop platform. HP plans to integrate its new webOS mobile operating system on its PCs, and will ship it on all new devices in 2012. But with HP, the plan is not to replace Windows, but provide webOS as a tag-a-long operating system, probably running on top of Windows. Although the details of how that integration will work are still unknown, HP CTO Phil McKinney did say earlier this year that it won't be running in a virtualized environment, but will be an "integrated webOS experience."
Meanwhile, Microsoft is also thinking about the future of PCs, and with Windows 8 has perhaps taken its biggest leap yet, offering an entirely rethought interface, inspired by its Windows Phone mobile operating system.
If anything, Microsoft's vision is closer to what Apple's is today, but even goes a step further, completely obliterating the traditional PC interface. HP's full vision has yet to be revealed, so it's hard to fully grasp at this time where it will fit in.
And let's not forget Google, which is toying with two separate operating system efforts - Android and Chrome OS, which may or may not merge one day.
But with all these innovations, the question technologists and pundits alike are asking is: when will desktop and mobile merge, once and for all? Will a "Windows 9" run on phones, tablets, laptops and towers? Will Mac's OS X ever become iOS X? Will webOS turn into some weird Windows/Web hybrid? Will Android absorb Chrome OS?
Who knows? The post-PC era has arrived, but where the path will lead us is still unknown. In the meantime, Mac users can take their first steps in this new frontier with Lion, available for download now from the Mac App Store.
Image credits: Apple, AllThingsD