Imagining a Cloud-Based Future for Mac OS X

Apple (s aapl) has recently been awarded a patent (via AppleInsider) for “administering and maintaining a network-booted operating system.” This could point to the development of a cloud-based Mac OS X. If it comes to pass, what would a cloud-based OS X actually look like and how will it work?

I imagine that using a cloud-based Mac OS X would, on the face of it, be much like using Mac OS X today; a user would boot their device, log-in to their user account and work or play as normal. The great difference, of course, is that rather than being read from the device’s local storage, the OS would be streamed to the device over the Internet. In a way, the concept resembles the early days of computing, when people used terminals that were often only smart enough to communicate with a single “mainframe” computer — where all the real work was done.

A modern, cloud-based OS X would likely be able to assess the device used at login and deliver the most appropriate subset of functionality for that machine. So, in this scenario, a MacBook Pro might get a richer array of functionality than, say, a more lightweight tablet device.

Delivering the rich functionality of an entire operating system over the Internet is only the first step; a user’s applications and personal data would also need to be made available, too. For this to work swiftly enough for the data streaming to go unnoticed, the beefy legacy applications we use today will need to be re-architected into lightweight alternatives with much smaller footprints — for example, imagine a re-jiggered iPhoto that, when loaded over-the-air to a low-powered tablet device, more closely resembles today’s iOS Photos app. For any of this to work properly, Apple would likely need a truly colossal, state-of-the-art data center to power it all. Why, what do we have here?

Closer Than You Might Think

Now, this might all sounds utterly ludicrous, but consider; Apple’s iOS devices and App Store ecosystem have, for the last few years, steadily trained users to expect at least this much;

  1. Great software is either free or inexpensive
  2. Software and services are easy to access (or acquire, install and update)
  3. The best tablets and cellphones are designed to offer exceptional portability and simplicity
  4. The very best portable devices turn on instantly and offer consistently good battery life

Apple’s MacBook line has been gradually moving to meet these expectations, with improved battery life, faster flash-based memory/storage for very rapid boot times and, with tomorrow’s launch of the Mac App Store, a seamless and user-friendly software discovery and management system. It’s only a matter of time until even the MacBook Pro and iMac lose their optical drives altogether, with USB and Wi-Fi networks filling the gap until even USB is replaced.

A Natural Next Step

None of this is as far-fetched as it sounds. In fact, it seems inevitable; a cloud-based OS perfectly delivers on Apple’s age-old, Jobs-inspired philosophy of ubiquitous minimalism, simplicity and interoperability across everything the company creates.

Users will no longer need to upgrade their operating system — heck, users won’t even need to know what operating system they’re running. OS updates will be pushed to their devices quietly, automatically, alongside app updates, and could be free or ad-supported.

A leaner, lighter, cloud-based software ecosystem will enable Apple to ditch mechanical hard drives entirely, making for lighter, thinner computers. More importantly, those future machines will be cheaper, too, and therefore far more disposable than a typical Apple notebook is today. The math is easy; it’s a far more lucrative proposition for Apple to try to achieve the same upgrade cycle it has with the iPhone (and potentially the iPad, too) in which customers are encouraged to buy (at least) one $499 device annually, rather than one $999 MacBook once every half-decade.

Problems Still Exist

Is a cloud-based OS X guaranteed? It is, in my opinion, but then, I’ve no idea how (or if) Apple can overcome some of the more chewy problems that stand in the way of a purely cloud-based future. For instance, in a world where high-speed Internet connectivity is still very much limited to wealthy developed countries, widespread technical disparity would invariably be the outcome, leaving entire developing markets effectively inaccessible to Apple.

Ultimately however, I think the signs are there that Apple is — gradually — moving ever more into the cloud. Jobs already redefined Apple as a “mobile company” (and as if to prove the point, last year the iPhone took the crown as Apple’s biggest money-maker). Apple knows the future lies in thin, light and cloud-connected devices. A cloud-based OS X is a natural progression of that future.

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