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The iOS and OS X: Time for a Divorce?

For better or worse, Apple has been busy integrating its mobile and desktop operating systems since Lion arrived in 2011. To some, this move was a bad thing, particularly when it came to redesigning the scrollbars and making them only show up on mouseover as a default setting. Reversing the scrolling behavior to something Apple labeled “natural” was also severely criticized, though both settings can be turned off in System Preferences.

Add to that including Launchpad in OS X, which may be fine on an iPad or an iPhone, but fails to pass the usability test, and you can see where some devoted Mac users complained about the “iOSification” of OS X.

Of course, having similar apps on a Mac and an iOS device can make the user experience more consistent. So if such apps as Contacts, Calendar and Messages for OS X work similarly to their mobile counterparts, that’s a good thing. When iCloud keeps things in sync — and that’s not always the case — this means that you won’t have to cope with having to re-engage your muscle memory every time you switch between the two.

But Apple has kept other key elements of the two operating systems separate. In using his famous mixed metaphor, about integrating toaster ovens and refrigerators, Tim Cook clearly understands a nasty truth that Microsoft has yet to grasp. You do not interact with your Mac the same way you interact with your iPad. Under the hood, the two operating systems share a common origin, and many core features, but are otherwise quite different in look and feel.

With a Mac, you expect OS efficiency, and Apple has promised more of it for OS X Mavericks. But you still expect to use all sorts of apps that will require tons of memory and storage space. The limits are fewer on a traditional personal computing operating system, and you want to want to know you won’t hit the boundaries very often, if at all.

But on a mobile device, you are severely constrained when it comes to storage space and RAM. Apps and the operating system both have to be specially tuned to work efficiently under such restrictions. That is an area where even Google runs into trouble with Android. Many Android handsets and tablets have a lot more memory than an iPhone or an iPad. They also have processors that might, in theory, be better at number crunching. But Apple’s iOS gear still offers a fast, fluid experience, often faster than products that should, in theory at least, be noticeably snappier.

Consider Samsung’s Galaxy S4 smartphone, which, in the real world, seems hardly faster than its predecessor, the Galaxy S3, despite having much better benchmarks. Of course, Samsung has been exposed for cooking the books, making the S4 run faster in certain benchmark apps to produce better ratings.

As for Apple, some suggest the ultimate game plan is for iOS and OS X to merge, to be the same. That may go against what Cook says now, but Apple is notorious for saying they won’t do something, while eventually doing exactly what they once denied.

On the other hand, there seems little indication that a Mac will suddenly blossom into a larger tablet with a touch screen. Microsoft has tried that tact for over a decade with nothing to show for it. While I suppose it’s possible for more iOS interface elements and apps to be brought over for compatibility, it’s clear to me that Apple needs to keep OS X moving in a more expansive direction.

I notice, for example, that The Mac Observer’s John Martellaro has written an intriguing commentary suggesting Apple should make OS X more friendly to power users. He, in part, echoes something I’ve written about from time to time, that OS X should offer an “expert” mode, where power users get additional settings and more features that might otherwise be hidden beneath the command line. This special mode can possibly be engaged in System Preferences or via the Setup Assistant when you first boot a new Mac OS or a new Mac.

Sure, you can access many of these features with a third party utility, which do little more than put a friendly face on a Terminal command. But why should Apple add a feature that’s not going to be used? I don’t think OS X is designed that way merely to fuel opportunities for third party developers. Right now, however, Apple appears to be removing visible features rather than leaving them intact and adding more.

So starting with Lion, if you want to visit the user/library folder to zap a damaged preference file or remove some other file to troubleshoot your Mac, you’ll find the folder is invisible. Sure, you can hold down Option and choose Library from the Go menu, but why? You can also make the change permanent via the Terminal. Maybe Apple sought to avoid mischief from Mac users who were in a little bit over the heads, but there are other folders on your drive that also ought to be hidden for the same reason.

The Expert mode would reveal those folders, system settings for power users, and provide other tools to enhance your Mac experience. Sure, a regular Mac user can have the simplified interface and do perfectly well, but maybe Apple needs to differentiate it even more from iOS.