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A Universal OS: it’s coming

Mobile App Development
Technology, Information and Media

Apple’s recent announcement that iOS and OS X will be unified under a single leader, Craig Federighi, is yet another signal of Apple’s goal to create a single universal operating system across all of its devices.

A business aligned

The groundwork for all of this was laid back in 2006 when the decision was made by Apple, on the recommendation of Bertrand Serlet and Scott Forstall, to build the operating system for the iPhone not on an embedded OS like the iPod Mini, but rather on top of Darwin (the kernel shared by OS X).

Steve Jobs and Apple have long talked about the intersection of Hardware and Software. What’s new is Apple’s recognition of services as a peer that’s equal in importance to Hardware and Software, something that’s been clearly acknowledged in the recent earnings call and the iPad Mini keynote.

The reorganization of Apple under the pillars of Hardware, Software and Services is perhaps one of the most important decisions Tim Cook will make. This streamlined org chart is likely intended to outlast the individuals that are currently in those roles.



Hardware has historically belonged to Bob Mansfield, a 13-year Apple veteran. Bob Mansfield’s retirement, and subsequent unretirement, indicates he was too valuable to Apple’s continued operations. It appears that Don Riccio will be taking over Hardware as previously announced, but will have the support, guidance, and mentorship of Bob Mansfield to ensure continuity and minimal disruption.


Apple, as we all know, is ruthlessly disciplined with their choice of words. So read Craig Federighi’supdated bio on Apple’s website closely:

Craig Federighi is Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering, reporting to CEO Tim Cook. Craig oversees the development of iOS, OS X and Apple’s common operating system engineering teams.

The important thing to notice is “common operating system engineering teams.” The mention of this is an indicator that the common OS Engineering team is not an afterthought, but is considered a peer to the iOS and OS X teams. And rightfully so. As the operating systems advance toward a convergent state, more and more of what used to be iOS-specific (such as iCloud, Notification Center, etc.) has become shared across OS X and iOS.

By definition, the shared engineering becomes the responsibility of not the iOS team or the OS X team, but a common OS team. In fact, the common engineering team will likely grow to be largest group amongst the three engineering groups underneath Federighi.


This reorganization has moved Siri and Maps under Eddy Cue, joining the ranks of Apple’s successful cloud services like iTunes, iBookStore and iCloud. But this is more than just asking Eddy Cue to take on additional responsibilities. This is about promoting the integration of all of Apple’s Cloud Services under one leader who will be tasked with making these services available across all Apple devices.

This is a similar effort to the one where Google rebranded Android Market as Google Play and reorganized it to live under Chris Yerga. Yes, this means that we will likely see an expansion of certain services to Mac and Apple TV. At the very least, this is a sign that all services will be unified across all Apple devices. We’ve already seen some extended to iPhone, iPad and Apple TV, but there’s still more left for Eddy Cue to do.


iWork, iLife and other Apple applications didn’t get a mention this week, but it’s possible that Apple will do something interesting here. While they may keep Native Applications (Desktop and Mobile Clients) under the purview of Federighi, it’s likely the iWork suite will join the ranks of PhotoStream and other services underneath Eddy Cue. For Apple to be competitive in services against Google, they need their services to be available across all platforms.


Under Eddy Cue, iWork will likely incorporate the same kind of features that PhotoStream has begun to incorporate for sharing and commenting across platforms. We can expect to see the following changes with iWork:

  1. Web-based viewing and editing of iWork documents at
  2. Shared files that can be collaboratively edited.

Apple may be closed with their software and hardware, but this doesn’t mean they’ll take the same approach with Services. For instance, Apple doesn’t want you to install OS X and iOS on non-Apple hardware, but they do want you to listen to music and watch movies on PCs with iTunes.

We can expect the elevation of Services as recognition that Apple will be as aggressive on this dimension as they have been on Software and Hardware over the past decade. Today, the only reason to consider using services from Apple —with the exception of iTunes on Windows — is if your own Apple hardware.

Depending on how aggressive Apple wants to be with Services — not just being an enabler of their devices, but running a stand-alone business — we may see Apple expand their services across device ecosystems, even ones where it does not create the software (i.e. operating system).

Eddy Cue has already executed this quite well with iTunes, PhotoStream, iBookStore, iCloud and AppStore all being available on the PC. We may see this model expand horizontally to apply to bringing Siri and Maps to Macs, PCs and — although the chances are low — other mobile operating systems.

This would be just like what Amazon and Google has done (and Microsoft is expected to do with Xbox). If Eddy Cue executes on this ambitious agenda, Apple’s Services could become the gateway for many into Apple’s ecosystem.

A more refined experience

Some of the best parts of iOS have already made it onto the Mac — you can see Apple starting to bring the two together as far back as their Back to the Mac event from 2010.

A common naming system

One of the interesting changes in OS X Mountain Lion has been the arrival of many apps from the iOS platform. Notes, Reminders and Messages were all apps that originated on iOS that eventually came to the Mac. This same influence can also be seen in app naming, where the iCal app on Mac is now called Calendar and the Address Book has been reintroduced as Contacts.

The reason for renaming these apps — and for moving these key iOS apps over to the Mac — is to create a consistent user experience for Apple’s users across all of their devices. If a user enters contact information into their iOS device, then they should be able to see that same information on their Mac. It’s clear that Apple recognizes the importance of having a consistent app experience across both the iOS and Mac platforms.

Holistically designing for the three form-factors of iPhone, iPad and Mac is a challenge that many companies are already addressing today, and Apple will likely attempt to make that a whole lot easier by ensuring controller logic is shared.

A move away from skeumorphism

Skeuomorphs serve a role that’s more significant than mere nostalgia. Successful skeumorphs make new designs seem familiar and ease the transition from one technology to the next. At the same time, they can give an expensive handmade feel to mass-produced objects.

One school of thought was that Apple would retreat from its heavy use of skeumorphs after successfully introducing a new generation of users to touch-based computing. But instead, Apple’s use of skeumorphism has been very significant and growing.

The iPad brought iBookStore’s bookshelves and a faux-leather Calendar. GameCenter subsequently introduced a casino-feel, complete with a felt table. Then, Apple brought all of this skeumorphism to the Mac with OS X Mountain Lion, adding skeumorphic components to apps like Calendar and Notes.

This has led to a lot of criticism on Apple’s design choices and many designers believe that Microsoft’s approach to create a modern, “authentically digital” UI with Windows 8 was a superior choice. Microsoft has argued for years they were only able to change their UI gradually because of the significant familiarity users had with their products. It’s a stunning reversal for Microsoft to shed its past so boldly while Apple to works so hard to maintain a bridge to the past.

Austin Carr from Co.Design:

Inside Apple, tension has brewed for years over the issue {of skeumorphism]. Apple iOS SVP Scott Forstall is said to push for skeuomorphic design, while industrial designer Jony Ive and other Apple higher-ups are said to oppose the direction. “You could tell who did the product based on how much glitz was in the UI,” says one source intimately familiar with Apple’s design process.

But before Forstall, it was Steve Jobs who encouraged the skeuomorphic approach, some say. “iCal’s leather-stitching was literally based on a texture in his Gulfstream jet,” says the former senior UI designer. “There was lots of internal email among UI designers at Apple saying this was just embarrassing, just terrible.”

With Jonathan Ive’s new role overseeing the design aesthetic of Apple across software and hardware, we enter a time where Apple will likely introduce a new design language — one with the less-is-more aesthetic Ive has brought to Apple’s hardware.

A streamlined development process

Resolution Independence vs. App Modes

Over the last few years, Apple has challenged developers to introduce resolution independence to their applications in order to support Retina and non-Retina displays. Auto-layout tools have also been introduced to support developers in creating landscape and portrait versions of their application with minimal additional code. This has been part of the brilliance of the MVC architecture and Storyboarding tools.

Even with these changes, designers are still fundamentally thinking about three uniquely different experiences: mobile, tablet and desktop. A unified OS will discard the notion that we create specific user experiences for specific devices and instead introduce the notion that we create user experiences based on “user modes.” These modes will be single-hand mode; full-screen mode; and windowed mode. The full-screen mode on Mac and iPad will in turn converge.


Dual-boot devices

Imagine a world where you can plug your iPad into an Apple Cinema Display and enjoy the Mac OS X experience you’ve come to love. Why isn’t this possible? Well, we may be closer to this day than you realize.

From a hardware perspective, the next generation of the Retina iPad could easily be the first Post-PC device that allows us to actually replace the PC and not just augment it. From a software perspective, Mac OS X would have to run on ARM processors — a feat which has been made possible by Apple through years of compiler innovation.

Universal Binaries

Universal Binaries were introduced on the Mac during the PowerPC-to-Intel switch in 2005, and have subsequently been brought to the iPad. There are two advantages to Universal Binaries. The first is they make it easier on the user by not having to manage multiple versions of an application, based on factors like CPU architecture or device type. The other advantage is that it makes it easier for developers to share code.


The model layer is a great opportunity to reuse code across multiple platforms and device types. It’s very common for both iPhone and iPad apps to have the same data model. iOS and OS X include a framework called Core Data to manage an apps object graph.

Core Data is based on a staple framework on NeXTSTEP and was brought to Max OS 10.4 in April 2005. Four years later, Apple introduced Core Data for iOS in SDK v3.0. Its features include change management, serializing to disk, minimizing memory footprint and fast queries to the underlying data.

Usage of Core Data promotes developers to build a clean separation of concerns between the data model and the presentation layer. The introduction of iPad — and the ability to create universal binaries across iPhone and iPad — means that developers are able to leverage the same code in the model layer and only have to introduce an iPad-specfic view and controller.


The view layer for an application is very specific to the type of device. Taking an iPhone app and sticking it on an iPad or Mac screen just doesn’t work. You have to take advantage of the strengths of that platform, tailoring your layouts and functionality.

One of the advantages of iOS is there’s great tool support for converting an iPhone presentation layer to an iPad presentation layer. A table view, for example, works the same way on an iPhone as it does on an iPad. There’s also the Storyboarding tool that lets you define your entire layout for iPhone and iPad, loading the correct storyboard for the device.

Unfortunately, Storyboards don’t exist on the Mac yet. If Apple were to introduce iOS and Mac Universal Binaries, they’d make it possible for developers to leverage the same model layer and create different view Storyboards. Apple has already done a lot to support this, but Storyboards would be another key piece in making fully universal apps possible.

App Store

The Mac App Store only has 10,000 apps vs. the 275,000 apps available for the three-year-old iPad. The ability for mobile app developers to bring their apps to the Mac will give them a new revenue opportunity.



A key question for a universal operating system is in regards to pricing. Will Apple offer one price across all three binaries (iPhone, iPad and Mac)? Or will consumers have to pay for each application three times? Our educated guess is that Apple will choose the same option as they did with unified pricing for Unified Binaries, giving developers the choice. Did I say choice? Yes, I did.

Developers will have three choices:

Choice 1: Create a Universal Binary, with a single price across the three versions.

Choice 2: Create multiple binaries and a separate price for each.

Choice 3: Make their app free across all devices and charge a recurring monthly or yearly subscription fee — also known as SaaS (Software as a Service) pricing.

The move to Universal Binaries will encourage many developers still charging an upfront fee to go toward the SaaS (Software as a Service) pricing model. We suspect developers like Omni Group (popular diagramming tool OmniGraffle) and Cultured Code (task management app Things) would consider a new pricing model. This will vastly simplify the purchasing decision for end-users and allow them to be able to charge for the full value they provide.

Ultimately, this pricing model allows developers to provide a price that captures the price-elasticity more closely by charging recurring users more money than the users that only want to use a product once. This model also neatly scales down to a free/trial mode, which allows users to use the application for a period of time without paying for it.

For content companies, the choice is clear. They’ll make a free Universal Binary and allow content purchased on any device readily available on other devices. Stats published by companies like Dropbox, Evernote and Netflix indicate the willingness to pay a subscription fee increased two- and three-fold as users were able to use their application across multiple platforms. This is, as Ray Ozzie said, an era of continuous services across connected devices.


There are several other Apple apps that could be brought to the Mac in the next unified release:

  • iBooks
  • Maps
  • Music
  • Videos
  • Podcasts
  • iTunes U
  • Trailers

Breaking the large monolothic iTunes into apps like these, and bringing those apps to the Mac, would be another great way to unify the platforms. We may also see Apple additionally release these apps for the PC and Windows 8 in support of their services strategy.


A universal operating system is an important step towards ensuring a consistent user experience across platforms, as well as eliminating the strain on developers while increasing revenue opportunities. This shift will be yet another example of how mobile devices take center stage in the post-PC era and cease to become mere accessories to their predecessors.

Mutual Mobile

Mutual Mobile Resource Team.

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