Should Apple merge iOS with OS X for iPad Pro?

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It's that time of the week again!
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Is merging iOS with OS X a good idea? For the longest time, the answer to that question has been a resounding no from anyone who appreciates good software — but with iPad Pro on the horizon, there may well be a growing case for it.

Friday-Night-Fights-bug-2The iPad Pro has the potential to be the ultimate 2-in-1 — a laptop that could really replace a notebook when you need to get stuff done. But in many ways, it’s being held back by iOS, which is still very much a mobile platform without many of the basics we have on our desktops — like a file manager.

So, is there now room for a new platform that delivers the best of iOS and OS X, perfectly suited to a tablet that doubles as a notebook?

Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight between Cult of Android and Cult of Mac as we battle it out over that very question!

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke Dormehl (Writer, Cult of Mac): Happy Friday, Killian. So over the past few years, we’ve heard more and more rumors about the idea that Apple might one day throw in the towel and merge OS X and iOS, much as Microsoft has done with Windows for its Surface tablets. Both Phil Schiller and Tim Cook have denied this (of course, Steve Jobs denied Apple was working on a phone, too), but I know it’s an idea you’re actually really keen on.

Why is that? And do you not think it would have the effect of diluting what it is that works about both Apple’s main operating systems, much has Microsoft has found with Windows since it started trying to make it more mobile-friendly? Explain yourself, Fandroid!

Killian-FNFKillian Bell (Writer, Cult of Android): To be perfectly honest, I thought it was a silly idea until I seriously started thinking about it when Microsoft announced the Surface Book, which must be the only PC anyone has gotten at all enthused about in recent years. It sold out in a week, and now there’s a massive wait list.

This excitement, at a time when PC sales are in the gutter, makes me think Apple missed a trick with the iPad Pro. As I briefly mentioned in a previous Friday Night Fight, I think the iPad Pro could have been an incredible hybrid between an iPad and a MacBook.

For that to happen, it can’t just run iOS — it needs OS X. In fact, I think it needs both. I’m not suggesting Apple should merge these two platforms together into one completely, but I do think there is a way to tie them together so that they work seamlessly on one device.

For instance, imagine the iPad Pro running iOS while you’re sat in front of the TV, browsing the web. Then imagine pairing it with the Smart Keyboard, and all of a sudden, the UI changes into what is essentially OS X — so it’s just like using a MacBook.

With a desktop UI and real desktop apps, the iPad could finally become the true laptop replacement Apple has been promising, good not only for media consumption, but proper creation, too — whether you’re writing a novel or animating a movie.

I don’t think this would be an easy move; Apple would have to devise a way to make iOS and OS X work seamlessly together on one device, and then make it easy for developers to build apps that have both desktop and tablet UIs. But if anyone can do that well, it’s Apple.

iPad Pro will be great -- but it could be so much more.
iPad Pro will be great — but it could be so much more.
Photo: Apple

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke: I can’t help but feel you’ve slightly backed down on your original stance. When we talked about the subject for this week’s Friday Night Fight, you seemed to be all gung-ho about arguing that Apple should combine both platforms across the board. So your iMac would essentially run the same OS as your iPhone. That’s a terrible idea in my opinion, which is doubtless why you’ve tried to slip out of having to defend it.

We’ve talked about the Surface Book before, and even as an Apple fan I acknowledge that it looks pretty sweet — but what you’re suggesting sounds more like a (dare I say it, Android-ish) mishmash of half-baked ideas than a strong new direction for Apple. Would this be exclusive to the iPad Pro, for example? And do you realize how tough it would be for developers to overcome the challenge of developing unified apps for two entirely separate operating systems? The coding alone would make it a massive headache.

Ultimately what I like about Apple’s approach is that it’s not cramming everything together into one awkward all-in OS, but creating different ones for different scenarios. Far from having some kind of iOS X hybrid, we’ve now got tvOS, watchOS, CarPlay, iOS, OS X — all of these different context-dependent optimizations which are nonetheless able to communicate the vital information across platforms.

Apple does a great job of combining features where it makes sense. Look at the way it’s moved Force Touch/3D Touch from the Apple Watch to the iPhone to the MacBook to the iMac. But there’s no point in diluting everything by putting them together for absolutely no reason. And I think you know that.

Killian-FNFKillian: No, this was always my original stance. The problem is, Luke, you never listen to me. Since I started using Android again, you don’t want anything to do with me. I agree that giving an iPhone and an iMac the same operating system is a stupid idea — but that’s not what I’m suggesting. You’re not seeing the bigger picture.

What I’m suggesting is that there is a case for carefully merging iOS and OS X — not just combining them into one and being done with it, but by creating a platform that offers the best of both worlds — for specific devices.

iOS and OS X both have the same basic foundations — that’s why Steve Jobs told us “iPhone runs OS X” during its original unveiling in 2007 — so it wouldn’t be too difficult for a company that has the talent Apple has to create this platform. Apple could make it easy for developers, too.

Apps would be built in very much the same way, except they would have another UI. Developers are already creating multiple UIs for iPhone and iPad when they make iOS apps, so they would simply need to add another “desktop” UI for when their app is used in desktop mode.

Let’s use the app Pixelmator as an example. It’s a terrific image editing application for Mac, and there are watered-down versions for iPhone and iPad, too. These could be combined together into one package, and users could seamlessly switch between them as necessary.

This wouldn’t have to be an “awkward all-in OS,” and it wouldn’t be for no reason — it could help sell devices.

The iPad Pro looks exciting, but it’s just a large iPad; it doesn’t really do anything an iPad Air 2 doesn’t do. That means it’s still not a laptop replacement for a lot of people who rely on real desktop apps to get stuff done.

Once the novelty wears off, then, iPad Pro sales will stagnate just like they have for every other iPad in Apple’s lineup. Apple’s going to need something new — not just something bigger — at some point, and what could be more exciting than the iPad I’m describing?

The Apple Pencil makes drawing on an iPad Pro incredibly precise.
The Apple Pencil makes drawing on an iPad Pro incredibly precise.
Photo: Apple

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke: I, too, would like to see more pro-level apps for iOS, and certainly more differentiation for the iPad Pro to get sales moving again. But I think Apple can continue to add features on a case-by-case basis, which is what it’s doing at the moment. What you’re describing sounds good in theory, but it also opens up tons of logistical problems to solve.

If Apple had built the iPad Pro with this in mind, it would be a different conversation — but I feel you’re taking a note out of the Samsung playbook and looking for flashy-sounding solutions which would sell in one particular use-case, but aren’t part of any cohesive plan going forwards.

Apple’s resources already feel somewhat overstretched giving us a new version of OS X and iOS each year, and you want to add another version on top of all that? It doesn’t make sense to me as a strategy, and I think that’s why Apple hasn’t done it. Heck, if you’d at least gone the whole hog and suggested Apple builds a touch-screen iMac, or whacks a physical keyboard and mouse on the new iPad, I could’ve respected it as a bold (if misguided) strategy. This would reek of a company with no fresh ideas.

Maybe others will disagree with me, but what you’ve tried to sell me on here doesn’t sound a positive step forward.

Killian-FNFKillian: Let’s see what others think, then. I thought an Apple fanboy like yourself would agree with me. I thought you’d be salivating and getting your credit card ready, but clearly I was wrong. Readers, what do you think? Are iOS and OS X fine as they are, or is Apple missing out in a world where hybrid devices are becoming increasingly popular?

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?