Apple unveiled OS X Mavericks at WWDC on Monday. How promising does its future look?
My laptop is dying. It was never really alive in the first place, but its slow degradation over the last four years feels like a death all the same. Like watching a beloved pet age and slowly become hobbled, there seems to be no good reason other than the passage of time. When I first bought it, its screen was bright, its case shone glossily, and it could stream videos in four different windows without stuttering. Now, the daily chores of running a web browser, an email client, and a word-processing application strain it in the saddest of ways.
In the keynote presentation at its Worldwide Developer's Conference, Apple unveiled the newest version of OSX, nicknamed Mavericks. The name is an allusion to the northern California surf spot once notorious for occasional great white shark sightings and crushing surfers into the sharp and jagged rocks below its 20-foot swells. Aside from the incongruity of naming something as dull as an operating system after a place where surfers glide across the forgotten memories of the dead, Mavericks offers a new way of stalling against time.
Many of the most vaunted changes to the OS have been largely superficial.
Before it became a meaningless brand, OS X was simply the label given the tenth version of Apple's OS. The cat metaphor given to its biannual updates was a sign that it would serve as a foundation for longer than OS 7, 8, or 9 had, with each cat variant (e.g., Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard) taking the place of a decimal.
With Mavericks, Apple has reached the 10.9 phase and, by ordinal logic, should be ready to let OS X become OS 11. But a good brand is hard to find, and though its clear Apple has long since left the original spirit of X behind, the label stays and the ordinal logic goes. This is mostly a point of semantics, but it shows the irrationality of both trying to hold on to something more than 10 years old while at the same time wanting it to seem new.
Many of the most vaunted changes to the OS have been largely superficial. Lion's update to the Mail application allowed threaded messaging, a standard feature for Gmail for years, and offered a view option split in vertical columns. These were simple changes that didn't need to be tethered to an entire overhaul of the OS, and which had been available in hacked form for years already. The old Spaces paradigm was also narrowed from a rectangular matrix of different desktops to a linear one, while the once new notifications center seemed to counter the logic of appointing different self-contained work environments by aggregating all of a person's reminders and updates into one unified sidebar of chaos and distraction.
The list of updates in Maverick is both overlong and insubstantial, leading with features like tabbed browsing in Finder Windows, a Maps application, the ability to run applications in fullscreen mode when using external monitors, and a bevy of technical improvements in the name of memory, battery, and processor efficiency.
The improvements in this last area are becoming to feel more and more like life support, a kind of recuperative care for devices of yesteryear. Each subsequent OS update, then, has the dual quality of trying to move a step into the future while going back to improve the convolutions of last year's versions. This creates a strange sense of progress as barely perceptible in the most important ways and jarringly unnecessary in the most visible ones.