Merging the Mac and the iPad
It seems undeniable that, given an infinite timescale, Apple will eventually simplify their two most popular systems into a single platform. Merging MacOS and iOS would, theoretically anyway, provide the users with the best of both worlds, and developers would finally have a single platform to target instead of two. This concept seems to run counter to what Apple executives have said in the past about the Mac, specifically that “the Mac keeps going forever”, but the interview that statement comes from is five years old now, which… in silicon valley terms, really is forever ago.
Since then we’ve seen some interesting ideas come to market, like Microsoft’s Surface Studio, a desktop computer with a 27” 4k touchscreen and stylus , and an odd dial that can sit either on the desk or directly on the screen. Samsung is hooking their Galaxy phones up to a keyboard, monitor, and mouse to use the phone as a desktop computer through the DeX dock. Outside of Apple, touchscreens on mobile computers are nearly ubiquitous, from Windows 10 PCs to convertible Chromebooks. Inside of Apple though, we’ve seen almost no crossing of the streams… almost.
The iPad Pro is a computer unlike any other. Incredibly powerful, but hamstrung by limited software and user interaction capabilities. Geek Bench scores are impressive, but you can’t hook up a thumb drive. It looks like a good device for free-form drawing and artistic work, but outside of basic static sties you can’t use it for web development. More than anything, iOS’s reimagining of an operating system for the modern, mobile world eschews decades of proven user experience work that’s gone into the MacOS user interface. MacOS is consistent, discoverable, and reliable. A good Mac app behaves similarly to the other apps that run on the Mac. Copy & paste, undo & redo, and standard keyboard shortcuts function the same across well-designed 3rd party apps and Apple’s own bundled apps. At least they did, until Mojave.
Mojave introduced four new bundled applications to the Mac. Home, News, Stocks, & Voice Memos were ported directly over from iOS using an as-yet-unnamed unified development framework popularly referred to as Marzipan. Apparently the framework is only half-baked, because the apps themselves do not at all act like they belong on the platform. Keyboard shortcuts are missing, UI elements are entirely out of place, it’s a mess. On a recent episode of The Talk Show, Jason Snell and John Gruber discuss the future of these apps, and Snell suggests that what makes a “Mac app” might be changing to meld around what these new iOS apps on the Mac become once the framework is more stable. Niether Jason nor John are slouches when it comes to discussing the Mac, but in this particular case I think Jason is wrong.
What makes a good Mac app is not an indiscernable feel or look to the application. A good Mac app behaves the way that the Mac has taught people to expect applications to behave since 1984. That’s how an application looks and feels like it belongs on the Mac, when things are where they are expected to be, and the application responds as expected when the user interacts with it. If Apple wants to bring iOS apps to the Mac, I certainly hope they have more in store than this. These iOS apps are going to have to learn to behave how the users of the platform expect them to behave, not the other way around.
In many ways, I think Apple found themselves at this crossroads almost on accident. In fact, I think the “macification” of the iPad is to its detriment. iOS was never meant to be used the way the iPad Pro is advertised. Features like multitasking and windowing seem like they were wedged into the OS when Apple found themselves with a less popular platform than they’d hoped. Apple thought that the iPad was the future of computing… what if they’re wrong?
Apple stubbornly wants the iPad to be the future of computing, so they’ve been focusing on making it more capable for power users, adding more and more hardware power and confusing the pure simplicity of iOS with undiscoverable features and unfulfilled promises. What if, in the next couple years, Apple decides to right the ship and build a truly good MacBook/iOS hybrid?
What about an ARM mac with a detachable touchscreen? Or one that folds over on itself? What if Apple learned all the best lessons from Microsoft’s experiments with their Surface lineup and did it right with the Mac? What about an iMac you can draw on? I’d love to be able to create my OmniGraffle drawings on my Mac with a huge canvas and an Apple Pencil. I’d love to be able to use touch on my Mac to interact with the UI when appropriate, and use the trackpad and keyboard when not. Let the Mac grow the way the users actually want it to grow and let the iPad go back to being just the best tablet on the market. Apple could simplify iOS again, and concentrate on making the Mac the best tool for getting things done.