Small but Perfectly Formed

The first iPhones shipped in June 2007, the first iPads in January 2010, and Watch in April 2015. This is what I had written in the middle of 2006. Other than gentle reformatting and adding updated links, I have not changed the content.

There’s something inherently fascinating about models. Crowds flock to see model villages, such as that a couple of miles from here at Godshill, and many of us spend hours admiring the fine detail of model ships in the National Maritime Museum. Remarkably, objects and locales that at full size we dismiss as grotty or uninteresting become highly desirable when shrunk to 1/10th or 1/24th scale.

Some operating systems are equally scalable, and inspire similar fascination when squeezed onto improbable devices. Linux is perhaps the most widely scaled, and can run on watches, iPods, hefty servers, or massive clusters of thousands of processors. Of course it is not the exact same operating system on each: you would not be able to run your SQL database or website from an iPod, but the kernel and core services are very similar.

Strangely, Apple and Microsoft have been reluctant to design their operating systems to be scalable.

Mac OS X Server is essentially the same operating system as the client release, with various settings altered to improve performance as a server, and lots of extras. But none of Apple’s smaller devices, the Newton or any iPod model, have run anything like Mac OS Classic or OS X. iPods run an embedded real-time operating system developed by Pixo, curiously bought up by Sun three years ago, but you can install Linux on most models if you really want.

Although Microsoft has offered variants of Windows for different types of hardware, such as Windows CE, and now Windows XP Tablet Edition and for Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC, the ‘Origami’ devices), these are becoming less scaled and more feature-tweaked variants. The Xbox 360 apparently runs not a trimmed-down version of Windows XP, but a unique operating system derived from Windows 2000. Look ahead to Vista, and there is even less evidence of scalability in Windows: although there are five different editions, they seem to avoid offering anything scaled down for today’s UMPCs or Tablets, and there will be no version of Vista for the Xbox 360.

Sooner or later, Apple will release a product that lies between current iPods and MacBooks.

After Pippin and Newton, they are understandably cautious about such ventures, but are now much better prepared. Despite its flourishing fancy features, Mac OS X is at heart quite scalable, with its Mach kernel and multiple layers of additions and extensions on top. Having more limited legacy code and features than the Windows family, OS X’s modular structure makes it simpler to produce a port for, say, a portable entertainment console, or to power a node in a massively parallel array of processors.

There are many advantages to scaling operating systems in this way, particularly for software developers. No commercial software house would be prepared to develop their products on a small console, so they need a proper development environment hosted on a desktop computer. If you can run this under the same fundamental operating system, it is cheaper and quicker to deliver high-quality development tools, and emulation can be more faithful.

As users expect more integration between mobile and ‘parent’ systems and networks, transparent networking and internetworking, and more, so it makes more sense to deliver low-end and specialist products with scaled implementations of a general purpose operating system.

Whilst Apple is well-positioned with OS X, the bottom line remains whether any manufacturer can have similar success with such an intermediate device, on the scale of the iPod. Initial reactions to Origami are worryingly similar to Newton, or Tablet PCs: fervent desires from a small core, utter disinterest from the mainstream. Just as model villages and ships attract coachloads of visitors, we don’t all want them in our gardens and homes.

Can Apple or anyone change that market in the way that they have with the iPod?

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 22 issue 17, 2006. I think the answer to my last question is yes, twice at least, and possibly a third time too.