Why iOS apps will make the Mac a better place... eventually

We’re going to have to learn new ways of doing things

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Who knew that a report that Apple was replacing iTunes with new apps brought to the Mac from iOS would open a Pandora’s Box of Mac angst?

But it’s really not that surprising. 2019 promises to be a huge year of change for the Mac, in large part because this fall’s macOS release will open the floodgates to apps originally designed for iOS. When you compare the features of an iTunes (conceived for the Mac of nearly two decades ago) with Music (built for the iPhone and retrofitted for Apple Music), it’s hard not to feel like the Mac is about to get dumbed down.

There’s no denying that if Apple brings these iOS apps straight across to the Mac without any upgrades, they will be far less capable than the app they’re replacing. iTunes started life as an MP3 jukebox and has been the receptacle for every media and device-syncing feature Apple has needed to add to the Mac in the two intervening decades.

iTunes was built at a time when listening to music on a computer seemed ridiculous when you could just use a CD player. What better way to provide an incentive to making the move to MP3s than by peppering the app with features only a computer could provide, like playlists (including dynamic rules-based ones based on song metadata) and funky visualizers. It turns out that the real incentive was about to come along a few months later in the form of the iPod.

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A new Music app for Mac is an opportunity for Apple to add new features on both the Mac and iPad.

Music is an app built in a different era for a different purpose. It’s simple and limited, with an interface that even now doesn’t seem to be properly optimized for larger iPad screens. On the Mac, it will seem like a fish out of water… unless Apple upgrades it. I’m hopeful, however, that Apple isn’t just going to toss the iOS version of Music on the Mac and call it a day. Moving Music to the Mac is an opportunity to give it an upgrade—for both the Mac and the iPad!—that will make it a more capable app.

Another recent report suggested that iOS 13 will add multi-window features. It’s hard not to connect that report to the fact that iOS apps are coming to the Mac, making it possible for apps on both platforms to have more complex and consistent interfaces. It makes me hopeful that Apple will use those new features to refresh the design of Music and other apps, making them not only look and work better on the Mac, but also on the iPad.

Still, some features are just not going to make it across. Smart Playlists is a fun iTunes feature I use a lot, but it does feel a bit fiddly, a “power-user” feature that the Apple of 2001 would embrace, but that the Apple of 2019 (and even the Apple of 2009) would probably consider too complex for most users. There are other ways to satisfy users who desire features like Smart Playlists, however. With Apple’s Shortcuts app, you can already build incredibly complex Apple Music tools. It’s not hard to imagine that we’ll eventually be able to make Apple’s simple apps do more complex things, but this may be a multi-year process.

Period of instability

I think it’s safe to say that we are entering a period of instability for macOS. Apple’s new technology to take apps built for iOS and run them on macOS will lead to numerous situations just like the one involving iTunes: Many old Mac apps will be replaced by new versions that are shared between iOS and macOS, and a lot of users are going to be frustrated by the removal of features and the different feel of the new apps.

It will be easy to grouse about the change. But there are a lot of potential benefits in the long term. Apple has spent the past dozen years rapidly building a new mobile operating system in the face of tough competition, building out its own native apps and creating a development framework for third-party apps. During this period it’s hard not to notice that there’s been less attention given to macOS and the apps that run on it.

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At WWDC18, Apple previewed a way for iOS apps to be brought over to the Mac.

But iOS has matured, and Apple said last June that it’s making a point of syncing up a lot of the underlying technology on both iOS and macOS that has diverged over the past decade. Apple is busy unifying many of its apps, so that they run on iPhone, iPad, and macOS. The result should be an Apple with reduced capability for app development because it’s got to duplicate work for iOS and Mac, as well as Mac apps that no longer lack features that Apple didn’t bother to bring over. (Imagine a new Messages app on the Mac that’s as capable as the one on iOS! That’s a big upgrade.) Apple’s apps have the opportunity to get better, faster, across all its devices, including the Mac.

Yes, there will be apps that currently don’t exist on the Mac that will come over beginning this fall, and some of those apps will be very useful and we’ll be glad to have them on the Mac at last. But beyond that first rush of apps, imagine a world where a developer can choose to build a new professional-skewing app once and deploy it on the iPad and the Mac simultaneously. Right now, if you want to build a pro-skewing app for Apple’s platforms without building two different versions of that app, you’ve got a choice—iOS or Mac. Beginning this fall, that won’t be true anymore. Developers who were considering a pro-style app for iPad Pro will be able to reach the Mac audience as well, and without having to learn an entirely new way of writing apps.

Change is hard, and the next couple of years are going to be hard for Mac users, because things are going to be strange and different and we’re going to have to learn new ways of doing things. But in the end, I think we’re going to end up with a macOS that is more active and vibrant than it’s been since the day the iPhone was announced.

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