Whither the Mac Pro?

The latest flurry of speculation in Apple circles is whether the Mac Pro has any future. This is, in essence, because Apple hasn’t revved the Mac Pro for eighteen months. Some articles I’ve read suggest this is because Apple is waiting on new Intel CPUs, but Dell’s current top-of-the-line workstations (it’s Dell, so no clue how long that link will stay good) seem to be configurable with more RAM and faster Xeons than the “current” Mac Pros. I recently started a new job and was offered a Mac Pro — I responded that I wanted to wait for Apple to rev the damn things first.

As someone pointed out, if you max out a Mac Pro’s CPUs it’s still more than twice as fast as a maxed out iMac (which is a generation ahead). (This comparison shows a 6-core Mac Pro being generally somewhat faster than a maxed out iMac.) For some value of “twice as fast”. For most of us, a nicely configured iMac with an SSD is going to be as fast or faster than a similarly priced (and thus poorly configured) Mac Pro. Oh and it will have a nice display. But it won’t be nearly as fast at “coffee break” tasks such as rendering complex 3d scenes or video comps. And you might not want the display.

What do you need a Mac Pro for anyway?

Here’s what a Mac Pro offers that you don’t get with a high-end Macbook Pro or iMac:

  • expansion slots (and large power supply to power them)
  • four easily accessible hard disk bays
  • lots of RAM capacity (64GB)
  • two slots for processor cards, allowing (for now) up to 12 cores and (in theory) easy CPU upgrades
  • extra reliability (Xeon)

Of these, the first and second can be addressed by Thunderbolt expansion (and, in fact, sticking a GPU inside a display makes a good deal of sense, except that the displays don’t exist yet, and it would be nice to be able to upgrade the GPU). I’d argue that having Thunderbolt-based hard drive housings actually makes more sense than sticking lots of hard disks in a Mac Pro.

RAM capacity is a big deal. I have 8GB in my Macbook Pro and it’s not enough. And I’m not doing anything nearly as demanding as a lot of Mac Pro users. If I could have 16GB I would. It’s easy to imagine needing more.

Upgradable CPUs are totally awesome. My favorite pre-Steve’s-second-coming Macs were the “sidecar” Power Mac 7300, 7500, and 7600, all of which had CPU daughter cards. Two years after I bought my 7600 I upgraded it with the latest PowerPC 604e for very little money and it took less than five minutes. Even if you could get a laptop or iMac with an upgradeable CPU (I had a Powerbook 1400, and upgraded its CPU too) the chances are its other limitations (RAM for example) will be so crippling that a new CPU won’t be much use (my PB1400’s hard disk and RAM largely negated the significant CPU upgrade). Apple’s professional Macs, by contrast, usually have far more RAM capacity than most pros need or can afford to fill.

Upgradeability aside, in terms of raw CPU performance I’m not sure the Mac Pro really justifies its existence any more. If you can distribute a task among 12 cores efficiently, chances are you can distribute it among a bunch of small machines (Mac Mini servers, for example) efficiently as well. In most cases, you get more bang for your buck from Mac Mini servers (with quad-core i7s and 8GB of RAM each) than from Mac Pros. And generally this is a net win for the user (e.g. if my storage is networked and I can hand off a task to a bunch of network nodes, the computer I’m actually using is going to be a lot less bogged down), and there’s also the fact that another computer is another computer. It’s easy to imagine having a Mac Mini hooked up to each TV in the house and also acting as a small render farm. For 3d rendering, there’s simply no way that the Mac Pro is cost effective — go to the cloud for short-term needs*, and build a render farm of whatever floats your boat for long-term needs.

Note: * the going rate for cloud-based render farms seems to be $0.70 per core per hour ($0.50 in bulk). Setting aside the fact that they’ve set up nice interfaces for kicking off batched renders and the like, that works out to a Mac Mini Server (maxed out with RAM, at retail) paying for itself in under three weeks. So if you want to run your own rendering farm, the Mac Mini Server is cost effective both initially and at scale.

As for the Xeon reliability advantage. I guess you know if you need it.

The Mac Pro Use Case

Rendering: I’m not doing any 3d or video production right now. If I were rendering long 3d sequences and video compositions, I would definitely not want to do them on my Macbook Pro, but I wouldn’t do them on Mac Pros either. Buying a bunch of Mac Mini servers to handle rendering tasks is not only more cost-effective than Mac Pros, but more granular and scalable. If I need 120 cores to render a 3d short, I can buy 30 Mac Minis at $36,000 or  10 Mac Pros for $60500 (or, better yet, rent the CPUs in the cloud for a whole lot less). Coming back down to Earth, I can buy one Mac Mini for $1200 to offload my rendering tasks and completely free up my Macbook Pro. I’d rather render stuff on a separate computer slowly than quickly on the computer I’m trying to use for other stuff.

Interactivity: The ultimate use case for any high-end workstation comes when you want interactivity. It’s not for rendering a movie, but rendering one frame so you can make adjustments. Or being able to perform some operation interactively at 10fps vs 3fps. Here, there’s no question that the Mac Pro has no replacement now or in the foreseeable future. If I want to mess around with billion polygon scenes or hundreds of layers or effects nodes interactively, chances are I want the most CPU, GPU, and RAM I can possibly throw at the problem. And chances are I don’t care if it’s portable.

I suspect that most high-end 3d and video guys can live without a Mac Pro simply by working smarter. I suspect a lot of them use laptops most of the time and work around bottlenecks. What’s more, a lot of them are probably using old hardware because it’s “good enough” and while they’d love to have more of everything, they don’t really need it.

Licensing Mac OS X

Another option would be for Apple to license Mac OS X in a restricted way for third-party hardware. (It’s already happening in a way — 10.7 is able to run virtualized.) Years ago many of us discussed the possibility of Mac OS X being licensed for “clones” and one persistent option was “once Apple didn’t care about Mac revenue”. The problem with licensing Mac OS X for the high end market would be that one could easily see it cannibalizing the high-end consumer market. Even if a “Mac OS X for clones” license costs $1000 it’s going to be quite attractive relative to paying $3000 for a maxed out 27″ iMac.

It’s also possible that Apple will simply continue to turn a blind eye to clones. A lot of 3d artists I know simply build themselves a Mac-compatible clone. (You can build a pretty good Mac Pro substitute for under $1500.)

It’s probably easier for Apple to cater to Mac Pro users simply by making the minimal, obvious improvements to the Mac Pro line or, if that becomes too onerous, simply selling generic compatible clones using off-the-shelf parts (i.e. what Dell does) in a nice box. This would be simpler than coming up with complicated licensing schemes and address a real need.

Gaming

I’m no longer a hardcore gamer. (Parenthood, etc.) My gaming needs are largely satisfied by my iOS devices and my XBox 360. But there is a hardcore gamer market out there and some of them (exemplified by John Siracusa) use Macs. There’s no question that a Mac Pro is a wonderful games machine (and that’s actually how I justified my purchase of a Mac Pro back in 2006 — since I used to buy PCs to play games on and Macs to work on, I figured it would be a net saving over a less expensive Mac and a PC for gaming). But I see a lot of hardcore gamers using laptops these days simply because they’re more convenient.

You could try to make the case that if Apple were to ditch the Mac Pro, it could finally release the mythical xMac to cater for gamers, but I suspect that even if it were priced compellingly (say $1000), most of its target audience would think long and hard about it, and then get a Macbook Pro or iMac anyway. Still, it’s pretty weird that Apple doesn’t have a Mac Mini configuration with a decent GPU and quad core CPU which would be 90% of an xMac right there.

Conclusion

In terms of computing requirements, my needs are probably greater than 99% of other users, but not 99.9%, and, guess what: I don’t really have any use for the Mac Pro any more. Does this mean that the target market for the Mac Pro is somewhere between 1% and 0.1% of the PC market? Of the five points I mentioned at the outset, the only one I really take advantage of is the hard disk bays, and a Mac Mini with an external enclosure would do as well. Better actually, since it would use less room and less power.

Indeed, all of the Mac Pro’s advantages are offset by its bulk. For me, the difference between having that extra RAM and grunt is offset by being able to take my “digital life” with me in a backpack anywhere I go without worrying which files are where. I would be far happier with the ability to dock with extra horsepower and storage. Indeed, if Apple moves towards allowing a single thunderbolt connector to add a whole bunch of extra oomph to your Macbook Pro or Mac Mini this may not only serve the needs of the kinds of people who use Mac Pros but new kinds of power user (e.g. the family with huge amounts of digital media that doesn’t want to invest in a Mac Pro).

I’d love to see another generation of Mac Pros, but I won’t be too sad if I don’t, and I doubt anyone will care in 2013.

The Sky Is Falling!

steve martin venereal disease
Steve Martin's "venereal disease" balloon animal

Yesterday, Gruber posted an article on daringfireball entitled “Wolf!”. (Oddly, I cannot find the link on the main page now.) He quoted a number of tech bloggers and the like who, over the years, have claimed that Mac OS X’s rising prominence is going to lead to a flood of malware for which stupid Mac users are hopelessly ill-prepared.

The title seemed clever but as another blogger (Guy English) points out, the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf is not just an object lesson for the blogger boy (who was eaten by the wolf after too many false alarms) but the Mac OS X user villagers (who stopped paying attention to warnings because of too many false positives). English is not claiming that the bloggers are right, but simply that it’s stupid to be complacent.

Gruber should probably have titled his post “The Sky Is Falling” since Henny Penny’s warnings turned out to be Just Plain Wrong.

I’ve gone over the “Apple is complacent about malware” crap before (note the emphasis on security in Lion), but let’s reiterate:

  1. Mac OS had plenty of malware in the late 80s and early 90s.
  2. Apple responded by building malware detection into the OS and Claris apps, and subsidizing John Norstad’s excellent Disinfectant anti-virus software which was distributed for free and constantly updated to handle any new malware as it appeared.
  3. For years, Apple gave away antivirus software to Mac.com account holders, so they could find out about all the Windows malware they were receiving as email attachments.
  4. Apple has signaled its intentions w.r.t. Mac OS X malware by building detection of all known in-the-wild malware into Mac OS X 10.6. The fact that this comprises a total of two viruses doesn’t mean that if it suddenly became 10 or 100 or 1000 Apple would give up.
  5. Apple has been, continues to be, and will remain better at pushing out software updates and patches to its user base than competitors.

Social Engineering

Most of the malware around these days is in the form of Trojans. Trojans are basically a social engineering exercise that involves:

  1. Convincing someone to come to your site and download something (or grab an email attachment and download that)
  2. Install or unzip the file and run it. (Ignoring warnings from your OS in some cases.)

Every OS is vulnerable to this kind of attack unless you tie down user accounts to the point where they can’t download and run anything. (And even XP lets you tie down accounts like this if you know how.)

Arguments about user accounts and so forth are moot. If a program can stomp around in user space then 99% of us are screwed. Knowing that your computer will still be able to boot afterwards is of no value whatsoever. (In fact, it may be of negative value since you will be less likely to realize what happened.)

So, the real question is: what makes a user more likely to download and run a Trojan?

My suggestions:

  1. Being terrified of malware and yet too cheap to buy antivirus software and too stupid to Google for good free software. A major source of trojans is sites advertising free malware protection.
  2. Wanting to get free warez.
  3. Being a moron who downloads and installs random shit.
  4. Running an OS that bogs you down in stupid warnings all the time (i.e. early versions of Vista).

Note that being an overconfident Mac Fanboy makes you immune to the first item in two different ways, and makes you less vulnerable to the second in one way. Clearly, there are morons using every platform, but given that overconfident Mac Fanboys tend to be wealthier, better educated, and have a demonstrated tendency to spend more for quality stuff, I suggest that they’re less vulnerable to item 3.

Acorn 3: Perfect Timing

Acorn 3Acorn 3 has just been released with an introductory price of $29.99 (via the App Store or not, as you prefer). To say that it changes the “balance of power” in the Photoshop-alternative stakes is a huge understatement. With Adobe playing a new round of let’s gouge our most loyal customers, I have to say Flying Meat’s timing is immaculate. It’s been a while since I last posted an update on the state of the Photoshop alternative market, so here we are.

Layer Styles

Acorn 3 does layer styles right. To begin with, its layer styles cover pretty much all the obvious suspects (e.g. gaussian blur and motion blur) and there’s no weird distinction between adjustment layers and styles — they’re all the same thing. Want to bevel a layer? It’s a layer style. Want to blur it? Layer style. Want to give it a drop shadow? Layer style. All in one place with one good UI. Photoshop, in contrast, offers three different ways of applying non-destructive changes to a layer and they all work differently (and none of them as nicely as Acorn’s).

It’s worth noting that Adjustment Layers do serve a purpose that Layer Styles do not (i.e. performing the same operation on everything “below” them) and Photoshop has a  convenient interface for copying and pasting layer styles which Acorn conspicuously lacks, but I expect this latter will be addressed shortly. (In other words, I made a feature request and since it’s very easy to do, I expect it will happen quickly based on past experience.) The obvious way to fix this would be for layer styles to work as expected on groups, but right now this is very much not the case (I’m not sure whether the way layer styles work on groups is a non-feature or a bug).

Correction: it turns out that, in general, layer styles work correctly on layer groups (making them generally more useful than Photoshop’s adjustment layers and layer styles) but that some of the styles behave strangely and it just so happens I used those styles and jumped to the wrong conclusion.

All-in-all, layer styles represent a huge leap in functionality for Acorn and help make it a serious tool.

Vectors

Acorn 3 boasts significant new vector functionality, notably the ability to convert text to bezier curves (which is extremely useful for graphic designers). Unfortunately, a lot of the ancillary functionality is not there yet (e.g. I can’t figure out how to resize a shape, which is pretty hopeless). I assume this will be quickly fixed, but it’s a huge issue right now.

Assuming the obvious things get fixed/added to Acorn 3’s vector support (transformations and booleans), Acorn will be very credible here and could easily manage to become better than Photoshop or Photoline in this respect (since both have pretty crummy vector UIs). The good news is that Acorn 3 has all the core functionality for great vector support and has implemented most of the UI well; the bad news is that its actual feature set is missing key functionality.

Gradients

The gradient tool now live-updates (which is nice) but isn’t editable in place (the way Photoline’s is) making it more of a gimmick than a useful feature. It’s a little odd to me that gradients aren’t available as a layer style (they’re very useful and Photoshop certainly offers this).

Where it leads the pack

With some minor omissions (e.g. gradients) Acorn’s layer styles are better than Photoline’s and for most purposes Photoshop’s. Pixelmator doesn’t have layer styles yet, but I think we can confidently expect them in Pixelmator 2, so while this is a huge advantage for Acorn right now, Pixelmator may catch up soon.

Acorn 3 also has a very low barrier to entry for writing plugins. You can write first-class plugins for Acorn using Python or JavaScript. Acorn also features solid Automator and AppleScript support. On the other hand it has no support for slicing (see below).

The Not-So-Good

Online Help. Acorn’s help is only available via the web. I’m not a big fan of Apple’s help system (with its mysteriously terrible performance) but it’s nice to be able to look stuff up when you don’t have an internet connection. Worse, it’s pretty incomplete. E.g. there’s nothing at all on masks. (Of course I only offer online help for RiddleMeThis so I’m not one to talk.)

Gradients. Gradients should be applicable non-destructively (as layer styles) and — ideally — editable in-place (as in Photoline).

Half-assed Vector Support. It really bugs me that Acorn now implements a lot of the hard stuff but doesn’t do the easy stuff. Right now you can’t seem to change control points from smooth to corner (and when you create a custom bezier you get n-1 smooth points and a corner, which won’t make anyone happy ever), nor can you select multiple bezier points or perform transforms on vectors. This makes what could be compelling or even class-leading vector support almost useless. Add booleans and SVG import and export and we’re talking.

Layer Masks. I’m not sure how this feature is supposed to work, but right now it doesn’t. What I’d like to see is the ability to turn a selection or its inverse into a mask, the ability to mask “into” layers (the way Photoshop does it), the ability to drag a layer into a layer mask so that its alpha channel becomes the mask, and a nice UI for editing a mask manually. What we have right now is (as far as I can tell) none of the above. (The documentation for Acorn’s mask feature is here, but it doesn’t currently appear in searches.)

Deal-breakers

Slicing and dicing. A lot of web developers use Fireworks or Pixelmator to chop up a design into lots of pieces automagically. Fireworks even supports button states and animation. Acorn has no functionality of this kind whatsoever.

If you want to edit HDR images (16-bits per channel or more) or work in different color spaces (e.g. CMYK or Lab) then Acorn is useless to you. Doesn’t bother me too much but it may be a deal-breaker. Similarly, look elsewhere for a non-destructive RAW workflow (Aperture and Lightroom are probably what you’re looking for).

If you need comprehensive typographic support or the ability to import vector art from a program which does have comprehensive typographic support then you’re using Photoshop and you don’t need Acorn. But Acorn does have nicer typographic functionality than anything else in this space (Photoline has more features but produces inferior output).

Right now, if you need comprehensive vector graphic support then Acorn isn’t there yet, but watch this space — I suspect it will be there soon.

If you need Photoshop plugins then Acorn does not support them.

If you work at very high resolution (e.g. for print) then Acorn doesn’t scale well. In fact, it even trails Pixelmator in its over-reliance on Core Image. If you are working on a 16MP image from your DSLR it’s going to be pretty unresponsive.

Conclusion

Acorn 3 is an impressive upgrade as much for what it delivers (class-leading layer styles) as for what it promises (if the new functionality is fleshed out with a few user interface tweaks, it may well be better than Photoshop for many purposes). I should add that Acorn is currently my go-to tool for quick image edits, ahead of both Photoshop CS5 Extended and Photoline 16.5. (I don’t have a Pixelmator license because I still consider it a half-assed product.)

Anyway, here’s my big comparison table revised and updated — new stuff since last time is in bold. Where a product clearly leads its peers, I’ve marked it in green. Where it clearly trails the others I’ve marked it in red. In a nutshell, if you can’t afford Photoshop, get Photoline. If you have Photoshop but want a “lightweight” alternative, get Acorn. If you want a pretty toy, get Pixelmator. But, I’m really looking forward to Pixelmator 2.

Category Pixelmator 1.65 Acorn 3.0 Photoline 16.5
Simple Painting Tools Basic but servicable Strong support for brushes, cloning tools, dodge and burn. You name it, it’s there
Text Cocoa text with nice drop shadows Decent typographic controls, elegant minimal interface, cocoa text, and full reusable layer styles. Fully styled and formatted text with both character and paragraph stylesheets and layer effects like emboss and drop shadow
Layer Support Blend Mode and Opacity, Text Layers, Layer Groups Strong vector layers (with some obvious missing stuff that should get fixed quickly), comprehensive non-destructive layer style support, Layers can be grouped hierarchically Blend Mode, Opacity, Layer Effects, Filter Layers, Vector Layers, Text Layers, Layers can be different modes (e.g. you can have 16-bit color, 8-bit color, Layer Masks, and monochome layers in a single document), Layer Styles, Layers can be grouped hierarchically (these are not new but deserves mention)
Filters Excellent Core Image support (including custom Quartz Composer filters)
Excellent Core Image support (including custom Quartz Composer filters) and some additional useful filters, such as Clouds. Many useful filters are available as non-destructive layer styles. Comprehensive set of filters (including some marked improvements over Photoshop) but no Core Image support. Stuff that Core Image doesn’t give you like comprehensive noise reduction tools, and fractal clouds. Oh and you can create and reuse named presets for almost everything.
Vector Layers None Solid vector support, but some missing features (e.g. transforms). Nice UI. Non-destructive layer styles. Full vector support with strong bezier tools and SVG import/export
Non-destructive editing Not supported Layer styles allow the most common filters to be applied and composited non-destructively. Non-destructive effects layers for most image adjustments (e.g. curves, levels, hue/saturation)
Image Format Support 8-bits per channel RGBA 8-bits per channel RGBA 16-bits per channel support, Greyscale, Monochrome, Lab color, CMYK
Digital Photography Support Direct RAW import Direct RAW import Direct RAW import to 24-bit or 48-bit (16 bits per channel)
Architecture Some clever optimizations (e.g. filter previews appear to be at screen resolution) but chokes on large files. Chokes on large images and slower filters. Clever and flexible preview system allows you to keep the program responsive when working with huge files, heterogeneous layer support
Workflow and Automation Some Automator actions (but no AppleScript dictionary) Python, AppleScript, and JavaScript scripting and plugin support Recordable macros and batch conversion, Save named presets for almost anything, enter expressions for numerical inputs
Web Export Support Slicing support. Direct export to Flickr, Picasa, and Facebook. Photoshop-style (but far simpler) web export dialog with file-size preview etc. Some random subset of Fireworks is implemented (slicing, button states, etc.). Not really sure how good or extensive it is (much more extensive than Pixelmator or Acorn) since I have no use for such stuff.
Plugin Support You can probably build your own using the Quartz Compositor tools from Apple. You can build your own using the Quartz Compositor tools from Apple, and there’s extensive support for creating extensions using Python, Objective-C, AppleScript, and JavaScript Supports Photoshop plugins.
File Format Support Pixelmator, Photoshop, PNG, GIF, JPEG, JPEG2000, TIFF, BMP, SGI, TGA, PICT, PDF, and a dizzying number of export options Acorn, PNG, GIF, JPEG, JPEG2000, TIFF, BMP, RAW import Pixelmator, Photoshop, PNG, TIFF, JPEG, JPEG2000, BMP, PCX, TGA, Mac Icon, Windows Icon, Windows Cursor, and a bunch more, and can import and export to an even larger number of options, notably including export to SWF and import RAW
Cute Stuff Live gradients, the “dangling rope” that joins position widgets to filter control floaters Gorgeous Icon, Filter Compositor, Elegant Minimalist UI, Elegant and powerful non-destructive layer styles Amazing gradient tool, full-featured yet it still launches amazingly fast, 64-bit support
Ugly Stuff Poor performance when previewing filters or working with high resolution images. Vector layers are still half-assed. Poor performance when previewing filters or working with high resolution images. OMG the icon … it burns! (Sadly, Pixelmator 15 introduced a new icon that’s just as ugly as the old one), half-assed web export and page layout features clutter UI without being useful
If I could add one thing from Photoshop Vector support, Layer Styles Just add the obvious vector functionality and we’re in great shape. Groups should work in the obvious way (they don’t right now). Being able to use one layer as a mask for layers adjacent to it.
Online Community Active Forum, Excellent Video Tutorials None Active Forum, Some (Lame) Tutorials
System Requirements 10.5 10.6 10.4
Price $59.00 $29.95 (introductory price) €59.00

Apple’s Controlled Experiment

Stuffit Expander (and some parasites) in the App Store
Stuffit Expander (and some parasites) in the App Store

It occurs to me that Apple has created, perhaps by accident, something of a controlled experiment in terms of determining the pros and cons of different approaches to managing the user experience on a platform.

On the one side we have the Mac App Store, where users can choose to get their apps through Apple’s channel or any other way they please, and developers can choose to distribute their wares through the Mac App Store or any other way they please.

On the other side we have the iOS App Store, where users can (modulo “jail-breaking”) only get their apps through Apple’s channel, and developers can only distribute their wares through Apple’s channel.

Obviously this isn’t a perfect experiment — it’s the real world after all. iOS and Mac OS X are different platforms with different users, different use-cases, and very different use-histories. But I suspect it’s a good enough experiment that the outcomes are guaranteed to impact both platforms.

I think it’s safe to say that if the iOS ecosystem worked the way the Mac ecosystem did, then pretty much all the complaints about the App Store would disappear. (This doesn’t mean a whole bunch of new complaints wouldn’t appear, of course.) Right now, the Mac ecosystem seems like an ideal world. You can opt in to the “walled garden” or go hog wild with warez downloaded by bittorrent. As a parent, I’d love to have OS-level support for keeping your computers in the walled garden. And, as someone working in a library, I’d love public access computers to allow users to download and use their apps legally, and then remove them when the user logged out.

So, let’s suppose that the Mac App Store turns out to “vacuum up” more-or-less all of indy development community. If we see a huge proportion of developers voluntarily opting in to the App Store because the revenues are so much better there (which in turn would mean that users are flocking to it), Apple might be encouraged to either (a) make the walled garden mandatory on Mac OS X, or (b) relax the walled garden for iOS. Or some combination of the two — e.g. AppleCare might require you to stay inside the walled garden.

Apple doesn’t need to “vacuum up” the big guys because it’s fairly easy to deal with a few large vendors (e.g. create specific technical or legal exceptions for them). It’s the long tail of software developers that are difficult to deal with. Apple isn’t worried, for example, that Adobe might produce a version of Photoshop that is actually a trojan. (OK, maybe it’s a little worried.) But there’s no way to keep track of hundreds of thousands of tiny developers who might, at any time, either create a trojan or have a trojan made to look like one of their programs, e.g. a long, long time ago — when indy software was largely distributed on floppy disks by user groups — there was a trojan purporting to be Stuffit 2.0. The developer — a high school student at the time — hadn’t released an update for a long time because he was studying for exams, and ended up having to make announcements that there would never be a legitimate Stuffit 2.0.

So: watch this space. OS X and iOS are destined to merge or just look a lot more similar as time goes on. The question is whether (and in what respects) iOS becomes more like OS X and vice versa.

Wild Guess: Mac OS X Lion will “run on” iPads with iOS5

So, 10.7 turns out to have true multiuser support — as in it turns your Mac into a time-shared system. And it has Mac OS X Server’s functionality built-in. And it has a bunch of convenient file-sharing functionality tailored to iOS users (iPad users in particular).

Hmm. What’s something that Apple does that none of the Android crowd (HTC, Samsung, LG, etc.) do that would provide huge synergy with iOS products? Apple makes Macs. (Note that while Google certainly knows a lot about servers, Google’s one major foray into the consumer OS market is the “browser as OS” — not something that will naturally extend to a time-shared home-server.)

Right now, the best remote-controlled media device in our house is a Mac Pro (with Netflix and Hulu). Why? Because we can use any iOS or Mac OS X device in the house to screen share it (VNC for non-Apple folks) and we never lose them (as of this moment, one of our two TiVo remotes is missing and we just found our Roku remote after losing track of it for nearly a year — and TiVo support among third-party remotes sucks, while Roku support is non-existent). There are many really nice screen-sharing clients for iOS, some special purpose (such as TouchPad) and others general-purpose (such as my current favorite, Remoter, currently on sale for $0.99 — and no I am not getting paid anything to link to either product).

Just yesterday I was trying to set a new profile picture in Facebook using my iPad in the living room and I realized that Facebook’s cropping UI isn’t usable on a touch-screen. So I logged onto the Mac upstairs and made the change from my iPad in a couple of minutes. It was a little clumsy — the Mac is running at 1920×1080 so there’s a fair bit of pinching involved, and I had to figure out how “click and drag” works on my screen sharing app (since it was the first time I’d needed it). But screen sharing onto a machine with a much larger display is always fiddly.

So, suppose this kind of thing gets built into iOS5 at a deeper level. Now, your iPad is, among its many virtues, a Mac OS X tablet running at native resolution. (But but but… scream the Linux/Android fans, we can VNC onto Ubuntu… yeah.)

Oh, out of curiosity, I wonder how well the new OSX gestures and UI elements work when used entirely by screen sharing from a touch-based device?

This also dovetails nicely with rumored improvements to MobileMe and making the “back to my mac” feature from MobileMe free. (Oh yeah, and I guess you can use Flash conveniently on your iPad if you really want to.)

But wait, there’s more!

What might a future device that supports iOS and Mac OS X device look like (or to put it another way, what does OS X look like when it becomes “legacy”)? Two different login shells on the same OS core. Now you can boot up your Macbook Touch (MacPad? TouchBook?) and launch into iOS by default. Or you can log into OSX by default. Either way, you can get to “the other side” either by “fast switching” or by “screen sharing”.

So in summary, perhaps what 10.7 is really about, from a UI perspective, isn’t copying iOS UI elements back to Mac OS X for its own sake so much as making 10.7 offer deep usability from touch-based devices so that you can enjoy OS X while logged into your Mac from your iPad 2.