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So Where Does the OS X Go From Here?

The original announcement about Mountain Lion came as a surprise to many of you. Before the first preview of OS 10.8 went live in February, odds were that there wouldn’t be another Mac system upgrade until the middle of 2013. After all, this was all in keeping with the “plan,” that new versions of OS X would arrive every two years.

Why should it be otherwise?

That is, except for the very first four versions of OS X, which arrived fairly quickly. The original 10.0 release, code-named Cheetah, arrived on March 24, 2001 (a Public Beta arrived six months earlier). Within six months, there came 10.1, Puma, to add critical missing features, such as DVD playback, and begin to address particularly sluggish performance, even on the speediest Macs. OS 10.2, Jaguar, shipped on August 24, 2002, and OS 10.3, Panther, arrived on October 24, 2003.

Before you could set your clock to Apple’s schedule, the mold was broken with OS 10.4, Tiger, which arrived roughly 18 months later, on April 29, 2005. OS 10.5, Leopard, went on sale on October 26, 2007, and OS 10.6, Snow Leopard, landed on August 28, 2009. At this point, it appeared that Apple’s OS upgrade schedule would slow down considerably from then on. Snow Leopard was meant largely as an under-the-hood update, without many visible new features, largely designed to pave the way towards a slimmer, more powerful OS.

So when OS 10.7, Lion, arrived on July 20, 2011, you might have become accustomed to biannual upgrades. Lion, as you know, was a full-feature release, representing the shaky beginnings of iOS integration. As usual, Apple released several maintenance updates, the latest being 10.7.4. There is also a 10.7.5 reportedly under development, but all eyes are on Mountain Lion.

Now one thing you should never do with Apple is assume you can guess their release schedule. Just when you’re certain you have it nailed down, they will change the rules. Consider the iPhone 4s, which arrived nearly four months later than many expected, resulting in slower sales in the September 2011 quarter, because of all those fence sitters. But Apple more than made up for that sales dip the following quarter.

With Mountain Lion, Apple is adding to the pace of iOS integration, at least in terms of certain key features and app names. It’s all quite different from Microsoft’s curious vision of the PC+ era, where some version of Windows is destined to run everywhere, rather than making them create unique OS environments for each device.

Yes, it’s true that Mountain Lion more closely resembles the iOS, at least superficially. Contacts are Contacts, not Address Book,. There are Notes, Reminders, a Game Center, a Notification Center, and other similarities. It’s all consistent with making it easier for users of an iPhone or iPad to move to the Mac and back again more seamlessly. It doesn’t mean the iOS and OS X should look and work the same, however, since the ways you interact with a Mac and a mobile device are supposed to be different.

You can see, for example, how Microsoft has screwed the pooch in trying to make Office 2013 friendly for Metro under Windows 8. If you use a touchscreen, the ribbon buttons will grow, to make it easier for your fingers to find the functions you want. But that’s a very partial solution, since most of what you do in the Office suite still requires a traditional keyboard and input device. This sort of schizophrenic behavior gives you the worst of both worlds.

As far Apple: Now that Mountain Lion is just about to be released, speculation will no doubt grow over the successor, presumably 10.9. Maybe a lot of the chatter will be all about the possible feline names Apple might use. Certainly the list is getting terribly short of the more common species. But the real issue is whether Apple can actually come up with roughly 200 fancy new features each and every year, or maybe we are going to see an OS 11 next.

Now the mobile computing universe moves a lot faster, so it makes sense to see iOS upgrades every single year, since Apple has to compete with such fast movers as Google. Sure, the list of new features in iOS 6 seems far more extensive that the ones advertised for Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean” and Windows Phone 8. But it seems most critics seize on a handful of tent pole features, while largely ignoring the rest.

With OS X, it’s certainly clear that Apple has a long-range game plan. They do know when new versions are going to be announced, and the probable release dates. But they will never release a long-range roadmap for anyone, as much as people, particularly in the enterprise, would hope to receive that information.

But there is something to be said for expectations. After Mountain Lion is released, you’ll read lots of reviews and analyses of the individual features. You’ll see articles on how those features can be improved, and the ones that Apple hasn’t gotten to yet. Since iOS integration is on the table, examining iOS 6 may provide some clues as to what you might see in OS 10.9, or perhaps not. Such features as Map, and the enhanced personal assistant capabilities of Siri, which mostly provide a wider range of information at your beck and call, don’t really seem appropriate for a traditional computer.

Apple, obviously, is going to keep OS X and the iOS distinctly different in a number of ways. That’s something Microsoft doesn’t understand, but it makes sense.