It may just sound like a number to many people, but Apple’s announcement that its next operating system will carry the version number 11.0 is as a major change that will, if recent developments at the company are brought together, redefine the idea of what it means to be a desktop computer.
Apple’s core operating system has been called Max OS X since it was introduced as version 10.0 in 2000, with each subsequent update increasing it by one decimal and using a code name such as Yosemite or Catalina.
This means rolling over the counter to 11, as the company did when it announced its latest ‘Big Sur’ operating system at its online-only WorldWide Developers Conference (WWDC), is a very big deal.
As usual, the understated company chose to market the new operating system based on its “beautiful new design” and left its legions of fans to pore over its new features – which include a host of upgrades to Maps, Messages and other core applications that echo the new features built into the iOS and iPadOS operating systems that run the company’s mobile devices.
Feature for feature, the next generation of Macs will look more like iPads than ever, with rounded corners and a design aesthetic that mirrors the company’s other announcements – including iOS 14 for its iPhones, iPadOS 14 for its tablet computers, and the updated watchOS 7 giving its wearable device features such as handwashing detection.
Changes under the hood
Yet behind the cornucopia of eye candy was a much bigger story: over the next two years, the company will base its next-generation computers on processors it has designed and built itself.
That move will see the company sprint away from its long-term partnership with Intel – whose CPUs Apple began using in its desktop and laptop computers in 2006 after its own PowerPC chips fell too far behind the dominant chipmaker.
That move, which based its computers on the same Intel processors as its Microsoft Windows-based rivals, was hailed as both “risky” and “one of its biggest successes” – so why, 14 years later, would Apple now abandon the Intel processors that propelled its mainstream success?
The answer lies in the way Apple represented its transition to ‘Apple silicon’ that, it says, will “deliver industry-leading performance and powerful new technologies… [and] establish a common architecture across all Apple products.”
In other words: Macs running Big Sur will be able to run exactly the same apps that the company’s customers are already running on their iPhones and iPads.
This was never possible in the past given the company’s different computing architectures, but the new Apple will effectively reposition its workhorse computers as souped-up iPads.
Outreach efforts will help developers make the transition, with new computers running Apple’s A12Z Bionic System on a Chip (SoC) due before the end of the year.
The SoC design combines the core processor with a range of other features – for example, a dedicated Neural engine that builds machine-learning into the core of the computer – in a single process.
As its designs evolve, Apple will be able to build different chipsets with different technologies: think power-reduction chips for mobile computers, high-end graphics rendering engines for desktops, and the like.
The future of the desktop
Yet behind all the software-developer arcana, Apple’s dramatic architectural split raises a significant question that suggests it is about to change the way you interact with your computer.
Running iPad apps on a desktop computer, after all, is great – but iPad apps are based around a touchscreen interface, and Apple’s desktop computers never have been.
Yet touchscreen laptops and desktops like Microsoft’s Surface family have been a hit – and if Apple’s coming desktops do officially mark the revival of the idea, it would officially mark the death of the desktop as we know it.
Apple, however, has made a long history out of surprising its customers – and it now has all its ducks lined up for a big surprise later this year.
Its March launch of an iPad Pro with LiDAR scanner – used for creating detailed maps of the surrounding area – was putatively positioned as a way of developing more detailed augmented reality applications.
But LiDAR’s ability to scan objects in three dimensions has a range of uses – and if the company was to integrate the same scanner into its new desktops, it could finally deliver a gesture-based user interface like the one that Tom Cruise made famous in Minority Report nearly 20 years ago.
It would be just the latest example of sci-fi becoming reality, with Integration of Apple’s Siri into desktops providing the kind of voice interface popularised in the 1969 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Yet If Apple brings together all the recent pieces of its technological arsenal, by year’s end you could be not only talking to your computer – but using your hands in the conversation as well.