Forgetting the Operating System

I awoke on Saturday morning to a fairly stormy morning. Rain lashed at the window and lightning crackled in the distance. But it was not the weather that woke me, it was the unified buzz, glow, and sound of an iMessage arriving.

All at once, unlike any time in the past, my Mac, iPhone, and iPad uniformly alerted me of the same item of information. Similar aesthetic features and consistent tones rung out from around my apartment, each boasting the same short burst of text and the same contact image. 

Although many have highlighted the annoyance of unified alerts, the novelty struck a poignant note with me that morning. In only a day or so, my perception of text messaging and communication had been entirely altered, my vision of the relevance of the Mac renewed, and my recognition of the marginalization of the operating system realized.

With each unified notification, I'm reminded that the technology landscape is undergoing abrupt change. The operating system - often perceived as the centerpiece of the computing equation - has been cast aside. Consistency, seamless interaction, and smooth transitions embody an environment heretofore unfamiliar - an environment in which the user and his or her data is placed in the foreground of the picture, alienating complexity with a politely draped layer of linen.

The choice of linen is immediately notable. Perhaps it's the literary romantic in me, but I cannot help but see the greater analogy at hand. As I lay in bed on that rainy Saturday morning, the light on my phone eventually dimming and returning the device to a dormant stasis, I cast my eyes out through the linen curtains adorning the window next to my bed.

Linen is a fairly sheer fabric. Airy and delicate, linen allows light to pass through it, shielding the vast majority of details from view, but reminding you that the world continues to exist beyond your curtains. In iOS and OS X, the choice of linen, although attractive, seems a striking symbol of Apple's current goal: intricately constructed simplicity and carefully hidden complexity.

Behind the shroud of linen, both in my bedroom and in my software, lies a far more complex world than I might otherwise perceive from my vantage point. From my perspective, I see only mere hints of the birds, planes, cars, and buildings in the outside world. Looking at my Mac and my iPhone, the presentation of this unified information atop a linen foundation seems a fitting nod toward such a phenomenon. The basic light of information passing through to me - the complexity filtered out.

Linen is a fitting symbol for the embodiment of the shift in the Apple environment. The marginalization of complexity, the deft subversion of previous difficulties, and the resultantly plain but attractive canvas upon which our information is projected.

It is upon this canvas that the operating system steps aside for the end-user - the walls between OS X and iOS tumbling down behind the linen curtain. From this view, the bounds of one screen or another become irrelevant. Apps, aesthetics and interactions are connected by a newfound foundation in iCloud - a unifying and guiding entity lying beneath it all.

In terms of layers, iCloud sits at the base of the structure. Despite its "Cloud" moniker, iCloud's position is not above us, it is beneath our every interaction in the Apple ecosystem. Unlike Microsoft's SkyDrive or Google's various web applications, iCloud exists as a skeletal system that seeks to redefine the operating system as we know it. Although your photos and emails do indeed pass effortlessly through the cloud akin to Google or Microsoft, the true significance of iCloud lies with its redefinition of the inner-workings of OS X and iOS. Functionality that once halted at the user and at the glass and aluminium edges of an LCD screen has been given deep-seated freedom - a complex interconnected network of thought synapses and connectivity. No longer do your actions end with your Mac or iOS device, they proceed out into your contextual environment.

iCloud is only in the nascent stages of its evolution, but its binding significance is already set to redefine the way we perceive the modern computing environment. Interactions are no longer identified by the device or operating system, they are simply be characterized by simplistic unification and effortless alignment. For the end-user, a document is no longer a static file, for instance. With Mountain Lion, iOS and iCloud, a document becomes something much broader - something intangibly different.

Although such progressions have existed for quite some time with the help of services like Dropbox, none have achieved the profundity of iCloud's long-term potential. Sans workarounds, preferences, and customization, iCloud's beauty lies in its naturalistic simplicity. The user thinks not of the System Preference pane or of making backups in case of catastrophic failure, the user merely focuses upon the work at hand. Amidst the breadth of iCloud, considerations that once characterized the computing experience become antiquated reflections of an unconnected and stifled environment.

The whole equation is reminiscent of the Allegory of the Cave. Originally appearing in Plato's timeless text, The Republic, the Allegory of the Cave tells of people limited only to looking at a blank cave wall, their understanding of reality limited to shadows and reflections of the outside world. Many will impute that iCloud exists as the chain holding the people against the cave wall - the agent of their uninformed and limited understanding of the true nature of things. But such attribution is flawed. In this instance, iCloud is a facilitating means for individuals to carry out their lives free of bindings. Rather than concerning oneself with flash drives, cables and backups, the individual is freed to operate without unnecessary complexity. The device and its operating rules no longer define computing, the life and context of a person does.

As the follow-up alert sounds through my apartment , I come to realize that complexity is far from gone in OS X and iOS. That the worries endemic in the technology community are endlessly unfounded. The changes here reach far beyond one operating system or another. Interactions are no longer characterized by one operating system's features versus another, they are characterized by the seamless unification of those interactions and of the ubiquitous access to your environment regardless of device and OS.

The matter is no longer about OS X or iOS, the importance lies with the user's interactions, the seamless experience, and the forthcoming marginalization of the operating system. As with any system, operating systems are defined by their boundaries. With iCloud, this is need not be the case.