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Separate Consumer and Pro Versions of OS X?

In a recent column for The Mac Observer, author Ted Landau suggests that OS X may some day be splintered into a consumer and professional level OS, perhaps as early as 10.9. This bifurcation would leave Mac users with a standard OS that very much mirrors the iOS, with its tight controls on the file system and the inability to officially gain access to the Unix subsystem. The Mac App Store would be your only source of software.

In exchange for giving up the extensive control of the Mac user experience that you and I have enjoyed over the years, the revised OS X motif would mirror the iPhone and the iPad. Call it a modern day version of “Simple Finder,” and the Finder itself may likely be history with this scheme, and forget about Terminal to poke into the OS’s underbelly.

There would also be a “Pro” version of OS X, available for the Mac Pro and, I suppose, optionally available for other Mac users, which would be designed in the spirit of the traditional Mac OS; in other words, very much as it is today.

I suppose the logic for this prediction is based on the fact that Apple has been busy merging iOS features into OS X, including adding more gestures that can be activated on a trackpad. But even Mountain Lion preserves the Mac experience. The larger changes are to the names and designs of certain apps, such as switching iChat to Messages. The Notification Center, although conceived in the iOS, owes a lot to a third-party app, Growl, which provides notification features for many Mac apps. Indeed, it’s fair to say that Notification Center, as originally conceived on the iOS, was influenced more by Growl than by the Android variant.

To be fair to Ted, for whom I hold great respect, I find it hard to agree with his premise. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to see some changes.

Over the years, I’ve advocated for an “Advanced” mode in OS X, with Terminal and perhaps more granular system settings and a Help system that would be appropriate. You’d activate it by clicking a System Preferences setting that requires your admin password.

The normal Mac experience would be mostly preserved, with some refinements to make it easier to use the file system — which still confuses Mac users after all these years — and a refined Help system that actually helps people with active assistance that makes sense.

This scheme doesn’t require having two versions of OS X to serve different masters. Indeed, Ted’s solution almost seems to have been influenced by the Microsoft playbook, where there’s a “Pro” or “Ultimate” version of Windows, plus lesser versions with features stripped from them.

The Microsoft policy is to offer variety at the expense of customer confusion. Versions of Windows may look the same, but some features are present on one PC but not on another. The new Surface tablet, should it actually be delivered as promised (and that’s by no means certain), will force customers to understand the differences between the Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro versions, and why traditional Windows apps will not function on the former without being rewritten. Rather than commit to a single, sensible product design, Microsoft wants to have it both ways. They are oblivious to the fact that Intel-based tablets have always been a hard sell. Real gold may come from the ARM version, but, again, Microsoft needs to focus and get in front of the market.

For Apple, I realize few can predict what direction OS X will ultimately take, or how close it’ll come to the iOS in terms of look and feel. But I also believe that Tim Cook is right that the PC and mobile platforms serve separate needs, and are used differently. You can’t have it both ways, which is what Microsoft wants since they can’t settle on a single strategy and stick with it.

In saying that, I can see why there are concerns over the direction of Mac apps. Apple’s sandboxing feature may offer greater security, but it prevents some apps from being accepted in the Mac App Store because they can’t be sandboxed with Apple’s current limitations. Consider such disk cloning and backup apps as Carbon Copy Cloner and SuperDuper!. They both copy all your Mac’s files, even the hidden ones, and thus require the sort of access to the file system that Apple won’t allow. To Apple, backups are meant for Time Machine, evidently, which forces third party solutions, often far superior, to be sold elsewhere.

With Mountain Lion’s Gatekeeper, the default (middle) setting makes it possible to buy apps from the Mac App Store and from independent software publishers who have gotten special security certificates from Apple. The larger concern is that, over time, Mac users will not be inclined to look anywhere but the Mac App Store when they want to buy some apps. That situation could present an unfortunate limiting factor on the potential for success for apps available elsewhere. Regardless if where Apple takes OS X, and I don’t think it’s going to be split into consumer and pro versions, Apple needs to rethink the limitations of the Mac App Store, and find ways to embrace any app that is safe, works as advertised, and won’t screw up your Mac.