With help from 64-bit ARM chips, Apple may create one operating system for iPads and Macs.
With Microsoft trumpeting the idea that PCs and tablets should run the same operating system and have all the same capabilities, will Apple go down the same road?
Apple became the most successful tablet vendor by far with a strategy that limits the capabilities of the iPad compared to Mac OS X desktops and laptops. But the most recent version of Mac OS X brings some iPad-like touch gestures to the Mac trackpad, fueling speculation that Apple might combine its two operating systems into one.
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Such a merger of Mac OS X and iOS -- which is used on both iPhones and iPads -- could begin next year and be complete by 2016, according to a report issued this week by Jefferies, a securities and investment banking group which also researches the technology industry.
Apple isn't saying whether it will combine the two operating systems, so the report is speculative. Jefferies believes 64-bit ARM architecture will be key for Apple to complete an operating system merger. While iPads run on 32-bit ARM chips, Macs run on Intel x86 processors.
"We believe Apple is looking to merge iOS (iPhones/iPads) with OS X (Macs) into a single platform for apps and cloud services starting in 2012-13," Jefferies writes. "Our preliminary view is that Apple can use a 32-bit ARM architecture to address the vast majority of the OS X ecosystem's needs in 2012-13 except for high-end professional devices. When 64-bit ARM is available in 2016, we believe Apple will have a single OS and hardware architecture."
Microsoft, meanwhile, already uses the same operating system -- Windows 7 -- on both tablets and PCs, and has not been successful in selling tablets. Microsoft will continue to use the same operating system for both tablets and PCs with Windows 8, but with a redesigned interface making it easier to navigate applications on a touch screen, and support for ARM chips.
The strategy has been questioned by observers who believe Microsoft should instead put its phone operating system on tablets, which is what Apple did when it took the iPhone's operating system and adapted it to the iPad. The current Apple strategy seems to assume that iPads should not do everything a Mac does because of its limited form factor and hardware. With next year's release of Windows 8, Microsoft plans to put all the capabilities of a Windows computer onto a tablet, but with the same Metro UI interface seen in Windows Phone 7 devices.
Jefferies analysts predict that a single OS for phones and computers will help Apple increase sales.
"Users want to be able to pick up any iPhone, iPad, or Mac (or turn on their iTV) and have content move seamlessly between them and be optimized for the user and the device currently being used," Jefferies writes. "We believe this will be difficult to implement if iOS and OS X are kept separate."
Cloud computing will help users easily shift from one device to another, while HTML5 will bring app-like experience to the Web with local storage to view content offline. But phone and tablet hardware has to advance before Apple's software plans can be fully realized, the analyst firm explains.
While the iPad 2 uses the Apple A5 chip with a dual-core ARM processor, Jefferies speculates that "Apple is ready to start sampling the A6 quad-core app processor and will be the first such multi-device platform capable of PC-like strength."
Jefferies predicts the iPad 3 will launch with the A6 chip in Q1 2012, while an A6-powered iPhone will launch next summer. The MacBook Air will get the A6 in the second half of 2012 or in 2013, but the higher-powered MacBook Pro laptops and Mac desktops will stick with 64-bit Intel chips until 2016, the analyst firm says. 64-bit chips allow greater use of memory and are useful for "computationally-intensive programs like Adobe's Creative Suite."