Apple Is Slowly Turning Your Mac Into an iPhone

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June 2 2014 4:49 PM

Apple Is Turning Your Mac Into an iPhone

How OS X Yosemite points to the future of computers.

Apple VP Craig Federighi introduces OS X Yosemite during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco on June 2, 2014.
Apple VP Craig Federighi introduces OS X Yosemite during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco on June 2, 2014.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At Apple’s annual developer conference on Monday, Tim Cook spoke like an officiant at a wedding.

“This morning we’re gathered to talk about two powerful platforms: OS X and iOS,” he said. “You’re going to see how they’ve been engineered to work seamlessly together.”

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

As an introduction to Mac’s new desktop operating system—the successor to OS X Mavericks—the matrimonial airs were apt. It’s called Yosemite, and it brings the Mac and the iPhone closer than ever. They can even finish each other’s sentences.

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The first thing you’ll notice about Yosemite when it’s released to the public this fall is a smattering of iOS-like cosmetic changes. They include translucent sidebars on windows, a single typeface throughout the OS, and “beautifully crafted new icons” on the dock. The star of the show: a new trash can, which proves that Jony Ive can make even garbage look flat.

It isn’t the appearance of those icons that’s significant, though. It’s their growing similarity to the ones you see on your iPhone or iPad. Apple’s demos of OS X increasingly involve launching apps like Maps, Calendar, Mail, and Contacts that look and function much the same across the Mac and mobile devices.

Meanwhile, the traditional desktop experience—which involved opening your hard drive and navigating through a hierarchical series of folders via the Finder—appears headed for the skeuomorphic dustbin. Now, when you want to open an application or file that isn’t on the dock, Apple wants you to use a revamped Spotlight search function that appears in the middle of your screen and pulls up results before you’ve even finished typing. Encroaching on Google territory, Spotlight can also search the Web.

In other phone-like developments, Yosemite sports a more prominent Notification Center. It appears to replace the old “Dashboard” function with something called the “Today” view that looks an awful lot like what you see on your iPhone if you drag your finger down from the top of the screen. Among other widgets, it features your calendar, reminders, and the weather for today and the coming week. In a bizarrely old-fashioned touch, it also includes a selection of world clocks.

The most phone-like thing of all about the new Mac operating system: You can use it to make phone calls. And send text messages. Via a new feature called Continuity, the Mac can pair wirelessly with your iPhone and serve as a sort of desktop-based speakerphone or text-message window. Apple VP Craig Federighi demonstrated the feature on Monday by using his Mac to place a call to the company’s new board member Dr. Dre.

I wasn’t kidding about the Mac and the iPhone finishing each other’s sentences: A neat trick called Handoff will apparently allow you to start typing an email on one and pick it up midstream on the other.

Desktop operating systems have been gradually converging with mobile operating systems for a few years now—some, like Microsoft’s, less gradually than others. Here, in an interesting role reversal, Apple is following Microsoft’s bold moves with its own, more conservative evolution. No doubt it has observed the pitfalls of Microsoft’s approach: Tim Cook bragged that Apple’s last Mac operating system, Mavericks, has reached 51 percent of all Mac users, while just 14 percent of Windows users have taken the plunge to Windows 8.

The next step for Apple: encouraging more small, third-party developers to build apps for the Mac as well as the iPhone and iPad, so that the Mac App Store becomes as robust as its mobile sibling.

What does it all mean? It’s another step toward a future in which phones, tablets, computers, and even televisions are all just different-sized screens for displaying the same stuff: email, Web pages, apps, documents.

Some devices will remain better for some purposes, of course: a TV for watching a movie on your couch, a phone for sending a quick text on the go, and—with apologies to the Microsoft Surface—a computer for typing. But you’ll likely be able to do just about any of these things on any of your devices.

What’s more, the transition between them will become seamless, with your progress on one device instantly backed up to the cloud and available on all your others. (Think of how Amazon’s Kindle service works today, marking your place in a book on your tablet so you can pick up where you left off on your phone or the Kindle Cloud Reader.)

It isn’t just Apple and Microsoft that are doing this, of course. Right there with them is Google, with its Android phones and tablets, Chromebook laptop, and Chromecast. It should be no surprise that Google is rumored to be working on an Android TV service next. Amazon sees the same future. It hasn’t yet built a computer, as far as we know, but it has the tablet and the TV set-top box and might also have a smartphone in the works.

And, of course, each of these four companies has been pouring efforts into streamlining its cloud services. Apple on Monday announced a Dropbox-like feature called iCloud Drive, which integrates files stored in the cloud with those stored on the hard disk so that both appear in the Finder.

It has long been fashionable in tech circles to predict “the death of the PC.” Microsoft has taken this to heart, so much so that it is now building tablets that directly compete with PCs powered by its own software. But Apple’s continued focus on—and success with—the desktop platform suggests that death is the wrong metaphor.

Mobile devices aren’t killing the personal computer. They’re getting hitched.

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