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Awaiting (or Dreading) OS 10.9

With so much speculation about as to Apple’s next great hardware revolution — or minor refresh — the most important issue may be the state of the OS, not the gadgets. Without OS X and the iOS, Apple’s greatest achievements may be little better than any other tech gadget. It’s the software that provides the smooth, elegant user interface and the relative ease of integrating all of your Apple gear.

With the apparent promise of annual OS X upgrades, maybe it’s time to start speculating about where Apple will take OS 10.9. According to some published reports, not confirmed by Apple of course, 10.9, known by whatever feline name seems to make sense, will support Maps and Siri. The former will reportedly come with an SDK, so developers can add the capabilities to their own apps. I would assume, in passing, that the ongoing improvements to Maps for iOS 6 will assuage ongoing concerns about the quality of the service compared to Google.

While Siri might work well enough on Macs, I should imagine you’d want to silence her in a busy office. I would also be curious to see how Apple expands Siri from just a cool gimmick to something very useful in a traditional personal computing environment, particularly where accessibility issues are involved. That’s where Siri might just come into its own, assuming voice recognition accuracy rises above the current level of mediocrity.

Apple will, of course, add yet another 100 to 200 flashy features to justify the upgrade, although I think the time has come to make it free. In the scheme of things, $19.99 is just a token payment anyway, and Apple would no doubt want to encourage every possible Mac user — those with supporting hardware and having no incompatible apps — to upgrade as quickly as possible.

Beyond those features, the appointment of Jonathan Ive to handle OS interface issues might result in fewer skeuomorphic excesses. Maybe Calendar will no longer mirror the physical desk calendar equivalent. A more consistent, somewhat more minimalist user interface certainly would be welcomed by some of you, though the current layout doesn’t bother me. Or at least when it’s consistent, which isn’t always the case, unfortunately.

It’s not just interface cleanups that may be significant, though. There are probably loads of problems with OS X that cry out for fixing.

Consider a recent article from long-time Mac developer Lloyd Chambers, who might be remembered by some of you as one of the authors of DiskDoubler, one of the best Mac compression utilities of the 1990s. In a recent blog on the state of OS X, entitled “Apple Core Rot,” Lloyd makes a very compelling case that Apple needs to make some serious changes, and make them fast.

Lloyd’s article is long, detailed, and presents first-hand experiences delving into the nooks and crannies of OS X. He makes so many compelling points that summarizing them here barely scratches the surface. But I’ll cover a few:

He also complains that system upgrades these days are riddled with mostly needless eye candy, rather than improving the user experience and improving system reliability. His language is strong, and his arguments are reasoned and well presented. One particularly indicting statement suggests that “The real talent at Apple has probably been diverted away from OS X to iP* development, leaving incompetent and truly reckless programmers working on areas they have no business touching.”

Now this isn’t the first time the critics have claimed that the quality of the Mac OS is deteriorating. You could say the same, and more, in the 1990s, when the aging, creaking OS was hardly capable of handling the needs of professional users. The end result, along with stagnation in the hardware segment, was that many rushed to embrace Windows, where the state of affairs wasn’t necessarily better, but there was some hope for eventual improvement.

Apple’s decision to switch to a tried and true Unix platform was a good thing. It extended the life of the Mac, and with the migration to Intel processors, made the Mac a mainstream product at long last.

Today, however, the Mac is only a small part of Apple’s product portfolio. The largest share of cash is earned by the iPhone, followed by the iPad. We are in a Post-PC era, where traditional computers are being supplanted by tablets in greater and greater numbers. That may present a severe disincentive for Apple to invest a whole lot of resources into improving Macs.

Since I am not a programmer, I wouldn’t presume to accept everything Lloyd suggests as ideal solutions to OS X’s problems. But I agree with a lot of what he writes about, and I have to wonder whether Tim Cook still takes the Mac seriously enough to make the necessary changes. To him, and his executive team, Macs may be mostly in maintenance mode these days. Yes, you’ll get lots of fluff, and the hard-to-get 2012 iMac is but one example, but the OS will merely coast along until it is finally supplanted by some future version of the iOS, where the “real” innovation may be occurring. That’s not an encouraging prospect, and I hope Apple will seriously consider investing a little more of their cash hoard to making the best OS X they can, and not just let the platform die of inattention.