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Of Refrigerators and Toasters

Apple CEO Tim Cook surely charmed Twitter users — and lots of others — with that famous comment about Windows 8 and the merging desktop and mobile operating systems. It would be very much like trying to combine a refrigerator with a toaster, he said, using extreme examples to get his point across.

But maybe there’s more to be said about that subject.

The feeling that OS X and the iOS would some day merge was fueled by the arrival of Lion, which represented a clear move in that direction. Not only were there more gestures in OS X, although I won’t bother to list them, but certain features, such as full-screen apps and even that dreadful Launchpad, were reminiscent of the iOS. Well, you don’t have to use either, nor accept the reversal in the direction of the scrollbars, or their part-time mouse-activated appearance.

To many, that shotgun engagement of OS X and the iOS was poorly designed. Some suggest that the migration from Snow Leopard to Lion isn’t as rapid as it should be, although the evidence suggests otherwise. In addition, Apple is giving away Snow Leopard free to entice MobileMe members to upgrade to Lion before that online service folds in a few weeks. They need to get with the plan and install iCloud. But that decision isn’t necessary the result of a perceived failure of Lion.

But you have to wonder why Apple can’t just offer iCloud to users of the older versions of OS X. Some people will not be able to upgrade to Lion or Mountain Lion simply because they need to use PowerPC apps as part of their workflow. Yes, there’s a new Quicken 2007 out there for Lion users, but some older apps weren’t published by multibillion dollar corporations that can afford to fix their apps. Lion and its successors remain non-starters to many, and I can understand why they feel abandoned by Apple with the end of Rosetta, the PowerPC emulator.

Now with Mountain Lion, the integration of the iOS is far smoother. Changing iChat to Messages is a well implemented solution. The public beta version of Messages seems very much the same as iChat, except for support for Apple’s own instant messaging replacement for cell phone texting. Notification Center only makes sense, particularly to those of you who are used to the Growl app or the iOS 5 solution. Gatekeeper is a helpful security feature, though it could go farther. It wouldn’t have stopped, for example, Flashback, which depended on Java Web applets, and not on launching newly downloaded software.

But the overall look and feel of Mountain Lion is otherwise nearly the same as Lion, based on my experiences with the beta versions. But you have to consider Lion and Mountain Lion as merely first steps in what may be a long road, and it’s not at all certain how closely OS X and iOS can align in a practical sense. I don’t disagree with Cook’s skepticism about what Microsoft is doing with Windows 8. Maybe Microsoft somehow believes that doing more, trying to go all the way with OS integration, one ups Apple. That’s why they’re doing it, not because it’s a better solution. There are even more gestures with which to confuse and befuddle the new Windows 8 user who might be forced to engage in wrist exercises, or take pain killers, to cope.

Now some suggest that Cook was playing the usual Apple game of decrying a concept only to embrace it eventually in a new way. So it’s true that Mountain Lion represents only a partial integration with the iOS. It’s not as if the iOS is, in turn, inheriting much from the desktop, although handling multiple windows on the iPad would seem to make sense. After all, the iPad’s display offers more real estate than the original compact Macs, and the first few generations of PowerBooks. So why shouldn’t the iOS take on more of the aspects of OS X where it makes sense?

What’s the end game? Well, the time is obviously coming where the traditional personal computer will occupy a far smaller role in the tech universe. More and more of you will be using mobile devices, perhaps a tablet or smartphone or something similar, instead. There will certainly be a growing incentive towards easing the transition from one to the other and back again.

But that doesn’t mean total integration is necessary, or even a worthwhile scheme. I still fail to see the logic in Microsoft’s Windows 8 solution, although the warm and fuzzy look might appeal to many consumers. Even Windows Phone, with essentially the same “face,” gets good marks from customers, even though there aren’t many of those.

On the other hand, it’s not as if Apple isn’t aware of all these possibilities. If the engineers who develop OS X and the iOS can devise a better way to offer near total integration, they will do it. Apple’s excuse, then, will be that other solutions, particularly those from Microsoft, were poorly implemented. Apple had a better idea. After all, it’s not the first time they’ve come out with a new product after severely attacking existing gear. Don’t forget the iPhone, not too many years after Steve Jobs was down on mobile handsets.