The Mac is on a col­li­sion course with the iPad

What’s a Mac, any­way? Ap­ple’s WWDC an­nounce­ments make us won­der.

iPad&iPhone user - - CONTENTS - Ja­son Snell re­ports

It was the most im­por­tant WWDC key­note for the Mac since the ar­rival of OS X two decades ago. Ap­ple’s an­nounce­ment of the Mac’s third-ever pro­ces­sor tran­si­tion was big enough, but it was only the be­gin­ning. Ap­ple also an­nounced a new ver­sion of macOS, Big Sur, that is full of new fea­tures and de­sign

el­e­ments that paint the clear­est pic­ture yet about where Ap­ple is tak­ing the Mac in the fu­ture.

It’s no co­in­ci­dence that Ap­ple chose this mo­ment to leave ver­sion 10 be­hind af­ter twenty years, re­plac­ing it with macOS 11.0. 2020 is the be­gin­ning of the Mac’s next (and, depend­ing on how you read the tea leaves, last) era.

The Mac and iPad col­lide

While Ap­ple has gone to great lengths to sug­gest that the Mac and the iPad aren’t in any dan­ger of merg­ing into a sin­gle de­vice, the ev­i­dence is clear: the Mac and iPad are get­ting more sim­i­lar with each pass­ing year. Just this spring, the iPad gained proper sup­port for point­ing de­vices. Now here comes iPadOS 14, which adds fa­mil­iar side­bars to a whole lot of Ap­ple’s

de­fault apps – in­ter­face el­e­ments very much in­spired by macOS apps.

In turn, the ma­jor de­sign over­haul in macOS Big Sur is clearly in­spired by iPadOS. Tool­bar el­e­ments high­light when the pointer moves over them. The new de­fault win­dow de­sign col­lapses the tra­di­tional Mac ti­tle bar into a tool­bar, with the side­bar ex­tend­ing all the way to the top of the win­dow, look­ing very much like an iPad app. Ev­ery­thing in Big Sur is a rounded rec­tan­gle, iPad style, from the new app icons to the re­designed di­a­log boxes.

Big Sur changes the Mac in­ter­face in lots of sub­tle ways, too. Ev­ery­thing’s a lit­tle bolder, and spaced out a lit­tle more from other in­ter­face el­e­ments. It’s hard not to look at the new in­ter­face and guess that Ap­ple is try­ing to make it more con­ducive to a touch in­ter­face, in ad­vance of in­tro­duc­ing touch­screens to the Mac.

Ap­ple sil­i­con Macs run iOS apps

If you think the Mac adding a touch­screen seems un­likely, even if Big Sur is sus­pi­ciously spac­ing in­ter­face el­e­ments out, per­haps this will change your mind: Ap­ple also an­nounced that Macs run­ning Ap­ple-de­signed pro­ces­sors will be able to run iPhone and iPad apps, un­mod­i­fied, straight from the App Store.

This is a huge move with a lot of se­ri­ous ram­i­fi­ca­tions. It cer­tainly makes adding a touch­screen to the Mac make sense, since those apps are de­signed (and scaled) for a touch-first in­ter­face. But it also calls into ques­tion the en­tire fu­ture of tra­di­tional Mac soft­ware de­vel­op­ment. Con­sider this: for two years, Ap­ple has been push­ing on a tech­nol­ogy called Mac

Cat­a­lyst, which al­lows the de­vel­op­ers of iPad apps to bring their apps over to the Mac. (It also has the ben­e­fit of en­cour­ag­ing iPad app de­vel­op­ers to add bet­ter sup­port for key­boards and point­ing de­vices, which has turned out to be an im­por­tant iPad fea­ture, as well.) But on a Mac run­ning Ap­ple sil­i­con, all those de­vel­op­ers will have to do to get their apps run­ning on the Mac is to check a box in the App Store, opt­ing them in to run­ning on the Mac.

Will those apps feel like ‘real’ Mac apps? Not at all. But they’ll run on Macs with no ex­tra de­vel­op­ment work re­quired. It’s a de­vel­op­ment that shows that Ap­ple re­al­izes that some apps are just never go­ing to come to the Mac – and that the Mac is stronger if it can run them any­way.

So where does that leave Mac Cat­a­lyst? Per­haps in the place it was all along – as a tool for con­sci­en­tious app de­vel­op­ers to make their iPad apps feel more Mac na­tive and less like iOS shov­el­ware. In macOS Big Sur, Ap­ple is con­vert­ing the Maps and Mes­sages apps to Mac Cat­a­lyst, be­cause even Ap­ple couldn’t keep sep­a­rate Mac and iOS ver­sions of its apps in sync.

In the near term, if you’ve got a Mac with Ap­ple sil­i­con, this is go­ing to be a good de­vel­op­ment. That app you wish you could run on your Mac – I’m look­ing at you, Xfin­ity and – will run on the Mac. The Mac will still be the Mac, and it will still run all the Mac apps you count on, but it’ll also do more, and that’s a good thing.

Two be­come one

It’s clear now that Ap­ple’s long-term vi­sion for its com­put­ing plat­forms is that they’ll all share the same de­vel­op­ment en­vi­ron­ment. While the Mac will still be able to run tra­di­tion­ally de­vel­oped Mac apps, the near fu­ture is go­ing to be apps brought over from iOS with the help of Mac Cat­a­lyst, and apps brought over from iOS with no mod­i­fi­ca­tion. Fur­ther out, Ap­ple hopes that SwiftUI al­lows de­vel­op­ers to build na­tive soft­ware for any of its plat­forms, mor­ph­ing from Ap­ple Watch to Ap­ple TV to iPhone to iPad to Mac.

If that’s true, though, does the Mac re­ally still ex­ist? The an­swer is yes – at least, un­til it doesn’t mat­ter ei­ther way.

Con­sider the iPad. It’s pri­mar­ily a touch-first in­ter­face, but over the years it’s proven to be a re­mark­ably flex­i­ble com­put­ing de­vice that will work

in all sorts of dif­fer­ent con­texts. It works with the Ap­ple Pen­cil. It works with ex­ter­nal key­boards. And now it even works with mice and track­pads. In some con­fig­u­ra­tions, to­day’s iPad al­ready feels per­ilously close to tread­ing on the Mac’s tra­di­tional turf.

Now con­sider the changes in store for macOS Big Sur and iPadOS 14, which bring the Mac and iPad in­ter­faces closer to­gether. Con­sider that in a cou­ple of years, ev­ery Mac be­ing sold will run the same fam­ily of pro­ces­sors as the iPad and iPhone. Con­sider that iPad apps can al­ready be­come Mac apps with Mac Cat­a­lyst, and will soon be able to run unal­tered on Macs with those Ap­ple-de­signed pro­ces­sors.

Is it so far-fetched to be­lieve that, even­tu­ally, the Mac and the iPad will be a dis­tinc­tion with­out a dif­fer­ence? If you handed me an iPad and told me that if

I at­tached it to a mon­i­tor, key­board, and mouse it would work more or less like a Mac, would it be a Mac?

To­day the an­swer is no – the iPad is dis­tinct from the Mac, and both have their strengths and weak­nesses. But will that be true af­ter five more years of hard­ware, soft­ware and App Store de­vel­op­ment? By the end of this decade, the Mac may be noth­ing but a par­tic­u­lar use mode, de­fined more by the shape of the de­vice it’s run­ning on and the kinds of in­put de­vices used to con­trol it.

By the time that hap­pens, if we’re lucky (and if Ap­ple ex­e­cutes its plans smoothly), it will be a dis­tinc­tion with­out a dif­fer­ence.

Icons of Ap­ple apps in macOS Big Sur. They sure do look like iPad icons

Mac Cat­a­lyst is a tool for con­sci­en­tious app de­vel­op­ers to make their iPad apps feel more Mac na­tive and less like iOS shov­el­ware

The iPad is cur­rently dis­tinct from the Mac, but this may not al­ways be the case

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