With Sierra, Apple lets the Mac be the Mac

Our fears about the grand unification of OS X and iOS were unfounded.

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While big updates like iOS 10 and massive rethinks like watchOS 3 might have commanded the lion’s share of attention during Apple’s WWDC keynote and the ensuing aftermath of discussion and Zapruder-level dissection, it’s worthwhile to pause for a moment and consider the state of Apple’s most venerable platform, the Mac.

No longer burdened by its increasingly dated X-laden moniker, the rebranded macOS got a major addition in the form of Siri, as well as some more minor improvements sprinkled throughout the OS.

But to me, the big message to take away from Monday’s presentation is that Apple is all too happy for the Mac to share features and technologies where it makes sense, but to still let it stand on its own two legs and be the best version of itself.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

Given the rapid success of iOS in the last almost decade, more than a few folks were worried that Apple might decide to shift the Mac towards a stronger resemblance to its mobile sibling. The company’s fall 2010 event was even described as “Back to the Mac,” the main thrust of which was bringing features from iOS to OS X, most notably a new Mac App Store and the changing of the scroll direction. That spurred fears of forced convergence among Mac fans, who didn’t want the peanut butter of iOS infesting the chocolate of their Mac experience.

But despite those changes, the iOS-ification of the Mac has never really happened. Yes, some features have been borrowed from the mobile OS or debuted in both places, but they’ve firmly remained two separate things, true to the words of Apple’s own Craig Federighi on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the platform:

We have a common sense of aesthetics, a common set of principles that drive us, and we’re building the best products we can for their unique purposes. So you’ll see them be the same where that makes sense, and you’ll see them be different in those things that are critical to their essence.

Apple seems to have followed through on that promise, and there’s nowhere it’s more evident than in the improvements that the company announced this week.

Sierra, meet Siri

When Apple demoed the addition of its virtual assistant, Siri, in the upcoming version of macOS, most of the tasks that were shown revolved around one thing: managing files. For example, Federighi showed how you could present complex natural language queries to Siri—i.e. “show me the files I shared with Jony last week.” In truth, that’s not much more than what the company showed off last year in its improvements to Spotlight in El Capitan.

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Siri isn’t just Spotlight by voice—it has some great Mac-specific abilities as well.

But as the demos continued, showing how you could store those files temporarily in Notification Center, then drag them into another app, it became clear that Apple was showing off features that simply don’t exist—or, moreover, don’t make sense—on the company’s mobile platform. These are inherently Mac-specific features, in addition to all the same things you can ask Siri on the Mac about the weather, sports, web searches, and so on.

Apple is also putting forth Siri on the Mac as a way to multitask more effectively: have it go out and accomplish tasks while you’re still doing something else. That’s fundamentally a different choice than on iOS, where Siri takes over the entire interface and consumes all of your attention. It’s in the same vein of macOS handling multiple windows and many apps with aplomb. Despite recent improvements to multitasking on the iPad, the Mac remains unquestionably the champ in this department.

Besides Siri, most of Apple’s major macOS-related announcements involve your Macs better communicating with other Apple devices: using your Apple Watch to automatically log in to your Mac, for example, or authenticating an Apple Pay transaction with your iPhone or Apple Watch, or even sharing clipboard information between your Macs and iOS devices. This isn’t so much convergence as it is integration, admitting that all these devices serve different purposes in your life, and all of them are here to stay—so they might as well get along.

Opening up

As information from WWDC sessions leak out, it’s also becoming apparent that Apple has dialed back on some of its attempts to import iOS-like behaviors to the Mac. For one thing, the company announced that it would no longer mandate that apps must be in the Mac App Store in order to implement iCloud-related features. That’s a big deal, because access to iCloud was one of the biggest carrots Apple had been using to entice Mac developers from traditional distribution models into its own store. Though Federighi and Apple’s Phil Schiller demurred when questioned about the Mac App Store during a live interview with Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, it’s pretty apparent to even a casual user that the Mac App Store hasn’t enjoyed its iOS counterpart’s blockbuster success.

On the other hand, reports from the initial beta of macOS Sierra also suggest that Apple has eliminated Gatekeeper’s “run apps from any source” security setting, now strongly nudging developers towards either being registered with Apple or distributing through the store. (You can, however, still override the feature on an app-by-app basis.) But, notably, the company didn’t simply lock the platform down to only Mac App Store programs, as many had feared might eventually come to pass.

All of this, to me, points to a loosening up of Apple’s “my way or the highway” approach when it comes to the Mac, and acknowledges that the platform has long had its own thriving culture and manner of doing things. Just as Apple has clearly decided to rethink its choices and discard ideas that didn’t work on its newest product, the company has shown that it’s willing to do the exact same thing for its longest-running product line.

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