I don't work at Apple. I have absolutely no evidence for this. This is pure speculation, but after processing the iPad announcement and the vortex of commentary about the iPad, I had an idea, and wanted to write it out.
The next major version of the Mac OS (10.7, or maybe 11) will likely adopt the iPad UI as its default UI. Here's why:
First, if you haven't read Steven Frank's commentary about Old vs. New World Computing, you should. It strongly influenced my thought path. Steven makes some excellent points about customer expectations when it comes to "new world" computing.
Apple has made it very clear that they are becoming a mobile computing company. The company derives a majority of its revenue from iPods, iPhones, and laptops. Revenue from desktop sales accounts for less than a quarter of their overall revenue. The biggest area of growth they've had (and are going to have) is in the mobile sector. This is going to influence their overall direction, even when it comes to their "crown jewel": the Mac OS. Millions more people use iPods (including the Touch) and iPhones than Mac desktops and laptops. Millions of people have probably switched to the Mac due to their very positive experience with the iPod/Touch or iPhone (the "halo effect" as business analysts have called it), and that's the "Apple experience" that they are used to.
The iPhone OS was/is a variation on the Mac OS. It carried a similar design aesthetic and even some of the same basic iconography (Safari, Mail) that the desktop OS used. As the iPhone and its SDK have exploded on to the computing scene, I've heard many people say (or write, or tweet) that "it sure would be nice if you could [insert some iPhone capability] on the Mac too." Functionality may be a driver for iPhone -> Mac OS UI adoption, but I don't think that's it. I think it's about the experience.
The iPhone/Touch/iPad UI is super simple. You touch (essentially click) on something, and it responds. There are few, if any menus. You do one thing at a time and when you're done with one task, you move on to the next. It's hard to get lost in the iPhone UI. There are no files, no file structures, no antiquated, computing-device-from-1980-centric notions of how to get things done.
A small detour: the iPad isn't for you, Person in the Software/Hardware/Web Application Development industry. I think that's a huge point that most of the analysts, pundits and commentators on the iPad this week missed. It's not a device that's going to replace your desktop/laptop with your 200 programs that you switch between at any given time to build the next Facebook. It's a device built for my Mom. Or your Mom. It's a device built for a 12 year-old kid who wants to connect and communicate in the very simple ways that IM, Facebook and SMS allow us to communicate while they watch TV, or sit on the bus, or are hanging out with friends. It's for people who don't care about a multitasking OS, or that it doesn't support real 720/1080p video (do you think they know what that means?), or — here comes the big one — that it doesn't support Flash.
A detour from the detour: I miss Flash on my iPhone. I would like to see it on the iPad. But it's not going to happen. Ever. Apple has no business interest in making Flash run on the iPhone/Touch/iPad. John Gruber clearly explains why. And the average customer won't think that there's something wrong with the iPhone/Touch/iPad. They'll think there's something wrong with your Web site. More than a decade of using the Web has taught users that when something goes wrong on a Web site, or something doesn't work on a Web site, it's the Web site's fault, not their computer. Not their iPhone. Their iPhone just works.
Back to the topic at hand.
If you buy an iPhone (or iPad) and you decide to move to a Mac from Windows, you've got another UI to learn. You learned the Windows UI, then you learned how to use the iPhone (or iPod Touch) UI, and now you've got a third one to learn. And that can be scary, and an annoyance, and a big time sink, and maybe a reason that you won't switch to a Mac desktop or laptop.
But if the UI you see when you buy that Mac laptop or desktop looks a whole lot like the UI you already know (and probably really like) on the iPhone/Touch/iPad, switching suddenly seems a lot less scary.
But what about the desktop? The Finder (or file system)? What about the Dock? What about having iTunes and Mail and iPhoto and Safari and iChat all open at the same time and clicking on their respective windows to quickly switch between them?
One of the major areas of frustration for most users in modern desktop/laptop computing is the file system. I know this may sound absurd, but as someone who works directly with users in face-to-face training classes (and online doing the occasional support that anyone who has a job in computing technology eventually does), users still, after 20+ years, don't get how a file system works and they don't get how to organize files, and, most importantly, to find them once they've saved them somewhere. This isn't just a Mac OS thing. This applies to Windows as well (perhaps even more so in the Windows word, but that's just me being a Windows basher). Beyond storing everything in the default location provided by the OS (or on the Desktop, because that's where a user can "see" their files), most users are utterly baffled by the complexity of a file system. If the computer could just figure it out for them and find the file when they needed the file, they'd be so much happier. Why do people send and store everything via email? Because it's really simple to find what they need using their mail client's search functionality.
(Please note that I'm not saying that you, dear reader, aren't smart enough to figure out the file system. If you're reading this rather unknown blog that mostly focuses on Web application development in ColdFusion, then you probably know more than your average user about computers and file systems.)
Apple has already taken steps in the iPad (iPhone SDK) to mask the complexity of the file system by having documents for a given application stored in the installation directory for the application. According to the article in RoughlyDrafted Magazine: "Documents copied to the app's shared folder will be graphically presented by the app when it launches, sparing users from having to figure out where to look for their document files and avoiding any need to sort through different kinds of documents." Sounds like Apple has taken a giant step towards masking the complexity of the file system to me.
It would be easy for Apple to offer a real, separate, standalone Finder app (not the one that still acts as the Mac OS desktop) in an iPad UI-based desktop/laptop OS for those times that anyone needs to navigate the hierarchy of the file system. If you want to get under the hood, you still could via the Finder app or the Terminal app, just like you do now.
(If you reflect on it a bit, you can see the direct, clear line between the idea of the iPhone/Touch/iPad UI and the Simple Finder from Mac OS 8.)
OK, so what about multitasking then? One of the great things about computers is that you can be working in 7 different programs at once if you need to and you can switch between them super easily.
When was the last time you watched (not just assumed) how a non-computer/software development-centric user gets things done? Most people use their computers for one task at a time. I check my email. I search for this thing on Google. I write this in Word. I play WoW. Most users focus on a single task in a single interface and then move on to another task in another interface. There is little to no need to jump between applications to get their work done. Google is taking this idea to its logical end by making the Chrome OS run a single application: the Web browser. Everything you could/should need to do can be accomplished via the Web browser, so why have any other applications in the OS?
(And, again, as a side note for the software developers reading this: think about Eclipse. Part of the success of Eclipse as a platform is the ability to add plug-ins of myriad scale and functionality to Eclipse so that it can do just about anything you want from a single interface, in a perspective that helps you focus on the task at hand. Isn't that what tools like Mylyn are all about?)
It would be trivial, in an iPad-based UI, for Apple to allow for multiple processes so that you could listen to iTunes while you surfed the Web in Safari, or receive incoming IMs or Facebook notifications while you read your email. That's not a problem and wouldn't be an issue in an iPad-based Mac OS 10.7 UI. Apple can keep the multitasking nature of the OS while masking the complexity of a multitasking environment behind a simple, one-app-at-a-time view.
Does the idea a single, full-screen view of a single application at any given time sound familiar? An operating system made by a company based in Redmond, Washington, adopted this model of computing years ago. When an application opens in Windows, the default view is for the application to expand to fill the screen. You can switch to other applications as needed (or even make them smaller so you can see multiple applications at once, like you can on the Mac OS). You are, however, focusing on a single application at any given time if you go with all of the defaults. Yes, the Start menu, like all menus, is an exception. But this is the desktop window UI that a majority of users have come to learn and expect.
One of the things I see switchers from Windows to the Mac struggle with is the concept of multiple application windows being open and visible at once. If you've used Windows for a long time, you expect that when you open Word, it's going to fill the screen. Not so on the Mac. Most windows don't fill the screen (iMovie and other non-linear video editors being an exception). There are floating palettes. There's a whole bunch of stuff that quickly piles up in a single window and it's easy to accidentally click on the wrong window and bring up an application that you don't want to work with at the moment.
Apple isn't shy about stealing from Redmond when it needs to. If it would make it easier for switchers to actually make that switch if the single-application-visible approach taken by default by Windows became the standard, out-of-box experience on Windows, that's a compelling argument for making that change. And that's how the iPad UI works.
Apple has a business interest in updating the Mac OS (and the iPhone SDK) on a regular basis. It sells. It sells hardware. It helps them to remain competitive and gives them yet another opportunity to dance circles around the folks in Redmond. OS additions like 64-bit computing and offloading computing power to the GPU sure sound nice if you know what they mean, but it's the UI changes that are the big ticket items, the big showpieces, and the big drivers for most consumers of an OS. Saying that "we've left the UI from 1984 behind and have made a true OS for the mobile Internet era" would be a big ticket item for Apple. (If it was actually, deeply tied to the Internet and cloud storage.)
Apple is, at its core, a company about the user experience. From the original Macintosh (making the arcane art of the command line go away in favor of a GUI) to the genius of using your finger as the primary interaction point between you and your computing device, Apple is about making the user experience simple and elegant. Apple doesn't care about offering 5,437 features in a single device. They care about offering 10 things that really matter, are core to getting the primary tasks of the device completed, and making those 10 things work flawlessly. If you've used the iPhone or iPod Touch, it's definitely simple and elegant. It just works. It's a really nice experience. It's the epitome of the "New World" computing that Steven Frank writes about. Why wouldn't Apple want to capitalize on that to make a simple, elegant, seamless experience from one of their devices to another?
I've left out just a few minor details, like how file storage would work in an OS that masks the file system and directory heirarchy as much as possible, and how cloud integration might allow the OS to become a true "OS for the Internet" (see Apple's acquisition of Lala, their new billion dollar data center in North Carolina, and our eternal hopes for a revamped MobileMe service as indicators), but this covers the basics of my hypothesis. Enjoy!