What if you put iOS on a Mac?

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 4 min read

Walt Mossberg writing for The Verge:

But the signs of a shift to ARM only set the stage for a bigger development: the migration of the most important modern software platforms, Android and iOS, to laptops and other traditional hardware that once defined the old kind of PC.

This is an exciting idea, for sure. But, I believe it won’t matter much until Apple builds an ARM-based laptop running iOS.

iOS has been with us for just about 10 years to the date. We got our first eyes on it in January 2007 when Steve Jobs gave the best product reveal presentation of all time, and a few lucky few got to buy the iPhone for the first time in June later that year.

It made the jump to tablets in 2010 (it was still named iPhone OS, which was a little awkward), but it's remained a "mobile" operating system since then. Everything that runs iOS is a flat, battery powered, touchscreen computer. The idea of a Mac running iOS may illicit horror in the hearts of some, but I find the idea is utterly fascinating.

Specs, baby!

One of the limitations of all iOS devices is that their tech specs will never match what you can get in a Mac. Sure, the iPhone 7 and iPad Pro are stunningly powerful machines, but they are inherently limited by the fact that they are assumed to never be connected to power and need to have to last all day. This means Apple has to find just the right balance of CPU, GPU, battery, RAM, and more that they can include in each device. When a phone needs to survive about 18 hours a day, and an iPad is expected to last 10 hours of use, that is a challenge. Not to mention small devices get hotter so they must account for the fact that these things can't burst into flames because it's chugging along so damn fast.

Now imagine if you could have a machine the size of a MacBook Pro and let it run iOS. Or even better, what about an iMac that's plugged in all the time? Suddenly those restrictions are lifted to a great extent and Apple can throw a ton more hardware at iOS.

iPads max out at 256GB of internal storage, but Apple will sell you a 1TB MacBook Pro, or a 3TB iMac.

The largest iPad has a 13 in screen, but I can get an iMac that goes up to 27 inches.

The iPad Pro has 4GB of RAM, but the MacBook Pro can have 16GB and the iMac goes up to 32GB.

And for processing power, the iPad Pro scores an impressive 4,855 in GeekBench, but the latest iMac scores a cool 16,539. If you bring the Mac Pro into the picture, it scores a 23,204, still clearly the fastest Mac out there.

What to do with those specs

Tech specs are a nice talking point for geeks like us, but what does that actually do for the user? Well, for starters a lot of professional software that can't quite contend on iOS right now would be possible.

4k and higher video processing is surprisingly good already on iOS for small projects, but added CPU and GPU power could make feature film editing more viable. The addition of larger screen options, maybe even multiple screens, would also make this usable for this market. You can make editing on a 13 inch screen work, but you really want to get something at least 2x as big as that. Needless to say the ability to have terabytes of storage to store video files is more ideal than a couple hundred gigabytes.

Software developers would be able to take advantage of additional processing power to compile their projects faster. They also would benefit from larger screens and the ability to have multiple apps running side by side (by side by side, even). If iOS is running on a 27 inch iMac-like device, Apple would have to change the multitasking UI to support more than 2 apps at once.

Photographers and digital artists could take advantage of the enormity of a 27 inch iMac touchscreen running amazing graphics software and using their Apple Pencils.

Expanding the type of hardware that iOS runs on would remove some shackles that the platform has on it today. Bulkier laptop-style hardware is a step difference, but thinking about iOS on a giant screen that's always plugged in an has no battery use limitations is a who new game. I am fully on board with this move to start having iOS infringe a little on hardware form factors currently owned by the Mac. iOS is a great platform, and new hardware could help it grow up faster than it is now.

All that said, all of this is for not if Apple doesn't make some changes to iOS itself. If you're going to have a platform that runs on 4 inch phones and 27 inch desktops, you need to have some new functionality available to those with larger screens. Give us better multitasking options, give us more options for I/O (SD card slot, multiple USB-C ports, etc), and even give us the options to turn off some of iOS's security features so we can have better inter-app communication and the ability to install software that doesn't come from the App Store.

There's a lot of work to do here, but Apple has the ability to move all of their hardware to iOS and relegate macOS to a "legacy" status. If they can do the leg work to make this happen, I think there is a lot of potential for us to think quite differently about iOS in the next couple years. Here's hoping Apple has it in them.