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iOS and OS X: Is Apple Running Out of Ideas?

How time flies when you’re having fun. The first Mac OS came out 29 years ago, yet it still somehow seems a little unfinished. After so many versions and the move from Mac OS to OS X, thousands of features have been added, some have been removed or changed, yet there always seems to be a large wish list for the next version.

If you have a cynical bent, you might suggest that Apple deliberately holds back features in order to have something to promote, and sell, for the next release. Perhaps that’s partly true, although it’s probably true that features earmarked for a specific OS version just aren’t ready to make the cut, although some will claim that Apple doesn’t let that stop them.

Now the early chatter on the next version of OS X, presumably 10.9, speaks of support for Siri and Maps, with the assumption that Apple has probably addressed the worst problems with the latter. There’s also talk of a tabbed Finder, but that strikes me as low-hanging fruit. Minimizing skeuomorphic interface elements is mostly a cosmetic issue. It’s still more about the core functionality.

While you can probably expect more iOS/OS X integration of one sort or another, Apple clearly understands that they cannot make the same mistakes Microsoft did with Windows 8. There aren’t going to be Macs with touchscreens, because that design scheme is just plain awkward, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a design and ergonomic point of view.

So what’s left? Does Apple overhaul the plumbing, unplug the aging HFS+ file system and plug in something new, something more robust, and something that can span multiple drives seamlessly? Well, I suppose, although something has to be done about converting files to the new format, and allowing you to read and write to older drives. It would be nice if Apple could make this a transparent process, for otherwise the effort doesn’t seem practical.

Apple could also go over all the wish lists about restoring features from the “Classic” Mac OS and see what ought to return. I’d like to, as an example, see a more configurable Apple menu, though I wonder if there’s much demand for that after all these years.

When it comes to iOS, a slim and light OS can become bloated real easily. Consider Samsung’s situation in packing on loads of extra apps for the Galaxy S4 smartphone and ending up filling roughly half the available storage of the 16GB version. If Apple pulled that stunt, what would happen to the 8GB iPhone 4? But Apple obviously can’t add feature after feature without paying the price of using additional storage. But I think the price of solid state storage has come down enough to make it possible to settle on 16GB as the minimum allotment even for the legacy iPhones sold after new models appear.

In saying that, I’ve already weighed in on a few odds and ends about the iOS that ought to be fixed in previous columns. I’ve concentrated on cut, copy, paste, Notification Center, and simplifying the settings panes. In comparison, Android’s settings can be incredibly complicated even in comparison to iOS. You can jump to the Settings pane, tap and hold menus, and there are internal settings of your various apps that may only appear when certain functions are accessed. The downside of having an essentially open platform, aside from the growing malware danger, is that apps can all do things differently. Consistency may sometimes go out the window, and far too many things do not just work. You have to make them work.

As with OS X, Apple might look into user complaints about iOS and fix areas where customers might tend to become confused, or have difficulty making things function the very first time. That should come before figuring out which 200 additional features, or minor feature enhancements, should be added.

The larger question, though is when (or if) Apple needs to totally redesign iOS and OS X. Maybe the latter would benefit most at this point, if it can be done without making it more difficult for customers to use and discover the new or changed features. This is the area where Microsoft failed big time with Windows 8. Although there will be an update, Windows 8.1, which may fix some of the worst ills, Microsoft has taken the position that the new OS will do fine once customers take the time to learn how things work. You see, to them it’s the customer’s fault, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to stem falling PC sales.

So as iOS and OS X are refreshed, Apple will confront the inevitable dilemma of having to come up with 100 to 200 new features to tout, while at the same time not confusing existing customers with far too many changes. But don’t forget that iPhone and iPad users managed to get accustomed to a totally new OS without a long learning curve. It can be done, as Apple has demonstrated over and over again.