Mac OS X: The Lion in Winter

First of all, mea culpa: I was completely wrong about Apple’s pricing strategy for Mac OS X 10.7. That doesn’t bother me — it doesn’t even surprise me that much. I don’t believe Steve Jobs and company are incapable of error, but I do believe they know much more about running their business than I ever will.

But the fact that OS X 10.7 is being released to the public for the measly price of $29.99 (side note: what’s with the double-decimal pricing?) is a huge deal, and not merely because it will likely be the most successful — that is, the most immediately widespread — OS release Apple has ever had. It symbolically closes an era that began 16 years ago with Windows 95: the era of the retail software event. Back then, the country went crazy for Windows 95 in a way that hasn’t been seen since, well, the iPhone came out. People lined up for it, bought it in droves, gossiped and kibitzed and complained about it. A lot of people liked it, a lot didn’t (at least at first), but everybody had an opinion. Windows 95 was more than the tech story of the year: it was the heart of the tech universe, a symbol of how much more than mere technology computer software was becoming. And it was Microsoft’s baby.

I’ve written before about Microsoft’s nostalgia for that era. Each Windows release since then has tried to capture some of that ol’ time OS religion, to steadily diminishing returns. Apple is finally and definitively saying goodbye to all that — and revealing these twentieth-century theatrics for the relic they are. Oh, they’ll make a big deal out of OS X Lion; there will be marketing, commercials, gargantuan enlargements in the windows of Apple retail stores. But there will be no more lines snaking out of those stores, no more giveaway t-shirts and bottles of water handed out to the waiting faithful. Lion is simply a conspicuous stage in an ongoing, iterative process, an inflection point in the otherwise smooth and steady evolution of the Macintosh computing experience. The software itself is a big deal, but acquiring it will not be — in fact, even the time-honored process of installing from physical media seems now a distasteful relic of an earlier age, like handcranking your car to start it.

So what does this mean for the future of the Mac OS? I don’t mean to be one of those discontented types always looking ahead to the next upgrade. I frankly can’t imagine how the operating system will evolve from here. But I do wonder about OS X’s future as both technology and product. When Mac OS X came out ten tumultuous years ago, Apple touted it as the platform that would grow with the Mac for the next decade or more. That decade is up. Could Mac OS X become obsolete? Short of a revolution in computing that obviated the microchip itself, I’m hard pressed to imagine a scenario in which OS X is not the foundation for every platform Apple ships. I’m no developer, but I think the technological underpinnings are sufficiently abstracted that even a kernel rewrite could be brought off relatively smoothly.

So assume that OS X will be with us, in form if not precisely in name, for the foreseeable future. What of Mac OS X the product? When Windows ruled the computing landscape, operating system upgrades were infrequent, ponderous events, accompanied with massive fanfare, scores of helpful books and magazine articles — an entire ecosystem of media and symbiotic technology. Apple changed that model by releasing OS X upgrades, for a time, every year. Eventually Microsoft got the message: you can’t spend seven years fiddling with your software anymore. Now that Apple has ended the era of the retail software release, what else might it dispense with? Does Mac OS X even need milestone updates? I feel quite certain that Steve Jobs finds it distasteful to even bother his users with something so esoteric as software upgrades. Why should you have to know, or care about, the version of the system software you are running? With an electronic app store, it is a simple matter to tag a potential purchase: “The application you have chosen will not run on your computer as it is presently configured. Click here to upgrade your system software and return to this purchase.”

Apple’s WWDC keynote represented a bold step into a new era of computing: one more decoupled, constantly in flux, yet potentially more liberating than anything we’ve yet seen. It’s impossible to say yet what it all means. But the rules have changed, and the future will become ever trickier to predict.

Not that it will stop any of us from trying.