As developers went to download the new iPad SDK last week (see "The iPad Arrives," 27 January 2010), they were asked by the iPhone Developer site to agree to a new version of the iPhone Developer License Agreement. Curious as to what the changes were, we compared the new and old versions.
Along with some tweaking of legal mumbo-jumbo, Apple changed one significant definition and added another. Previously, the agreement used the term "Apple OS" to describe "the iPhone operating system software." Apple has now switched to using "iPhone OS," and more tellingly, has stopped referring to the iPhone and iPod touch specifically. Instead, the license relies on the new term "iPhone OS Product," defining that as "an Apple-branded product that runs the iPhone OS."
Though this may seem like a minor point, it has long been a sore spot for authors who have either had to write out "iPhone and iPod touch" regularly in books and articles, or assume that readers will understand "iPhone" to mean both the iPhone and the iPod touch. The addition of the iPad to the line means that the previously awkward full description of what some app runs on, for instance, would have to become the even more awkward comma-delimited phrase, "iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad." Try saying that five times fast.
For legal purposes then, Apple has switched to "iPhone OS Products" to describe all three, which also ensures that the license agreement will support any future devices running the iPhone OS. And those of us writing about the field can now use the less formal "iPhone OS devices" when we mean any of the three, though I suspect "iPhone" will remain the shorthand version for headlines and when the full phrase feels clumsy. (A similar change happened years ago when the release of new devices from Palm forced us to switch from "PalmPilot" to "Palm OS handhelds.")
But could this seemingly minor change in terminology foreshadow a more significant sea change in Apple's product line? To those of us watching Apple closely over the last 25 years, it seems clear that these iPhone OS devices are really what Steve Jobs has always wanted a computer to be, ever since the early days of the Macintosh. While still acknowledging that Apple can't provide every piece of functionality on its own, the iPhone OS devices are as close to appliances as you can get, and far more so than Macs.
After all, iPhone OS devices are closed systems that insulate users from the complexity of a highly capable operating system. While their ease-of-use is arguable (the multitouch interface isn't hard, but its gestures are still virtual representations of what we would actually do with real-world objects), the fact that users manipulate onscreen objects directly seems like something Jobs would have wanted from the beginning, if it had been possible. Plus, although I doubt the Steve Jobs of 1984 had the iTunes Store in mind, the idea of an integrated marketplace controlled (and taxed) by Apple has to have huge appeal to the Jobs of today. And finally, in today's world, a closed system offers an attractive solution to the ever-increasing problem of digital security, particularly for less-experienced users.
I'm not suggesting that Apple will stop paying attention to the Mac side of the business - after all, it still accounted for $4.45 billion in revenue last quarter (see "Apple Reports Record Sales and Profits for Q1 2010," 25 January 2010). But I am suggesting that in the coming years, we will see more iPhone OS-based devices that tread into ground previously occupied by laptop and desktop computers. The availability of the iWork suite - Keynote, Pages, and Numbers - for the iPad is the first significant acknowledgement from Apple that an iPhone OS device could take the place of a Mac, and I expect that trend to continue.
With the iPad as a model, is it that hard to imagine an "iDesk" that's the size and orientation of a drafting table, complete with advances to the iPhone OS that make it possible to work in multiple apps simultaneously? Such a device would provide users the same kinds of functionality as a modern day Macintosh, but with the direct manipulation of the iPhone OS's multitouch interface and integrated extensions made possible by the App Store. Obviously, it would have to stand on its own, rather than syncing to a Mac or PC, but it would still be part of a larger iPhone OS-device ecosystem, where you would have access to exactly the same data and (barring screen size limitations) apps on the iPhone in your pocket and the iPad on your nightstand or in your briefcase.
Don't get me wrong, this isn't going to happen in the next year, but I think it's where computing is going in the next ten years.