Project Catalyst re­veals Ap­ple’s strug­gle with the fu­ture of the Mac

IOS de­vel­op­ers must look within them­selves to build great Mac apps.

Macworld (USA) - - Contents - BY JA­SON SNELL

There’s an old joke about a bad writer blam­ing his tools—a sad excuse that it was the typewriter and not poor writ­ing skill that was to blame. When macos Mo­jave was an­nounced last year, fea­tur­ing four apps that orig­i­nated on IOS and had been moved to the Mac ( go.mac­world.com/ move) by some­thing we now call Catalyst, many of us were quick to blame Catalyst

for the strange de­sign quirks of those apps, which seemed sim­pli­fied in ways that were jar­ring.

Re­cent state­ments by Ap­ple soft­ware head Craig Fed­erighi, in­clud­ing his in­ter­view with John Gru­ber ( go.mac­world. com/grbr) dur­ing WWDC and a sub­se­quent in­ter­view ( go.mac­world.com/sbsq) with Ja­son Hiner of Cnet, make it worth re­vis­it­ing that as­sump­tion.

“When I read some of the ini­tial re­views of those apps, peo­ple were say­ing, ‘Ob­vi­ously this tech­nol­ogy is caus­ing them to do things that don’t feel Mac-like,’” Fed­erighi told Cnet. “Hon­estly, 90 per­cent of those were just de­ci­sions that de­sign­ers made… peo­ple took that as ‘this feels ios-y’ and there­fore they thought it was a tech­nol­ogy thing. Ac­tu­ally, it was a de­signer pref­er­ence.”

“The apps were bad be­cause we made bad de­sign choices” is a bit of a weird de­fense. Is Fed­erighi just de­fend­ing Catalyst and his en­gi­neers (at, I might point out, the expense of his de­sign­ers), or is there more to this? I sus­pect it’s a lit­tle of both, as Ap­ple tries to cre­ate a bridge be­tween two very dif­fer­ent plat­forms at the same time that it’s tin­ker­ing with a whole­sale re­design of what it means to be a well-de­signed Mac app.

SEARCH­ING FOR THE EX­EM­PLARY APPS

There was a time when Ap­ple set the stan­dard for the apps on the Mac. To see an Ap­ple-built app was to see what apps on the Mac should look like. Es­pe­cially in the early days of Mac OS X, we would pore over in­cluded apps like Sa­fari and Mail and Ad­dress Book and bun­dled apps like those found in the iwork and il­ife col­lec­tions.

These apps would sug­gest to Mac app de­vel­op­ers what Ap­ple thought the state of the art of Mac app de­sign was. A few months later you’d see that all the ma­jor Mac app up­dates would be tak­ing hints from Ap­ple—a tab dis­play here, a drawer there, a float­ing pal­ette over there.

Mo­jave’s four IOS im­port apps in­spired no­body. It’s pos­si­ble that by the time macos Catalina ships, they’ll be im­proved—and the ad­di­tions of Pod­casts and Find My might also change the nar­ra­tive. But based on the ini­tial pub­lic beta re­lease, these apps are still ei­ther very sim­ple util­i­ties or are still miss­ing menu items and key­board short­cuts and the other niceties that Ap­ple spent all of WWDC week push­ing to an au­di­ence of po­ten­tial Catalyst de­vel­op­ers.

This is not to say that there won’t be great ex­am­ples of Catalyst apps, ex­em­plars for other de­vel­op­ers to fol­low. I’m op­ti­mistic that some of the de­vel­op­ers of IOS apps I use a lot will go the ex­tra mile to make sure that their apps are good Mac apps when they ap­pear on the plat­form. I was en­cour­aged by a Twit­ter thread ( go.mac­world.com/twth) from the de­vel­oper of Fer­rite Record­ing Stu­dio, one of my fa­vorite IOS apps. In the thread, he says he is com­mit­ted to mak­ing a “Proper Mac App” and that it will take time to do so. While lis­ten­ing to the Ac­ci­den­tal Tech Pod­cast ( go.mac­world.com/atpd) and Un­der the Radar ( go.mac­world.com/udrd)

pod­casts, it’s clear that Over­cast de­vel­oper Marco Ar­ment is sim­i­larly not will­ing to dump a lousy ver­sion of his app on the plat­form.

IOS app de­vel­op­ers are Mac users—it’s the only plat­form avail­able for IOS app de­vel­op­ment. They know what the Mac feels like. I think many of them will choose to do the right thing—but it’s a shame they won’t have ex­em­plary Ap­ple apps to in­spire them.

CHANG­ING THE DEF­I­NI­TION

Which brings me to why I think Ap­ple’s in this strange in-be­tween state with Catalyst app de­vel­op­ment. I don’t think it’s that Ap­ple is un­in­ter­ested in build­ing good Mac apps—as Fed­erighi him­self said to Cnet, “we’ve got to co-evolve with our user base around the aes­thet­ics of the Mac ex­pe­ri­ence.” The im­pli­ca­tion is that Ap­ple knows these Catalyst apps need to be bet­ter, and that they will be.

When Fed­erighi says that Ap­ple and the user base must “co-evolve,” that strikes to the heart of it. Ap­ple is chang­ing the def­i­ni­tion of what makes a good Mac app, and a lot of that will be influenced by the de­sign de­ci­sions it makes for IOS, be­cause it wants to unify its plat­forms as much as it pos­si­bly can for ef­fi­ciency rea­sons.

This is messy. A one-size-fits-all app de­sign ap­proach won’t work, and I don’t be­lieve Ap­ple re­ally wants that. But in macos Catalina, it does seem to be re-eval­u­at­ing a lot of in­ter­face con­ven­tions. Ap­ple’s own apps—not just the ones made us­ing Catalyst—are try­ing all sorts of dif­fer­ent in­ter­face ap­proaches in some­what in­con­sis­tent ways.

Let me give you one ex­am­ple: Ap­ple’s us­ing an in­ter­face con­ven­tion where there’s a cir­cu­lar icon with three dots on it in sev­eral of its apps. Tap on the icon and you get a sub­menu with ad­di­tional fea­tures: in Pod­casts, for ex­am­ple, you can delete an episode from your libary. In Photos, you can play a movie.

This is the sort of fea­ture that, in the

past, was some­thing you’d just hide be­hind a con­tex­tual menu—that’s a right-click or con­trol-click or (if you use a track­pad) a two-fin­ger click. And in some (but not all) of the apps in Catalina, a con­trol-click will re­veal the same op­tions as what you’ll find by tap­ping that cir­cu­lar icon.

I can see the ar­gu­ment that many users do not think to two-fin­ger-click on things, and there­fore are miss­ing im­por­tant fea­tures that maybe they’ll be more likely to find if they see a cir­cle with three dots in­side it and click on it to see what it has to of­fer. The counter ar­gu­ment is that not all fea­tures need to be front and cen­ter be­cause most users won’t use them, and hid­ing them be­hind a sec­ondary menu is not much bet­ter than hid­ing them be­hind an al­ter­nate click.

But is Ap­ple re­ally push­ing for more dis­cov­er­abil­ity for ex­tra fea­tures? One big change in ipa­dos 13 is a tap-and-hold ges­ture that pops up a con­tent pre­view win­dow with a bunch of con­tex­tual shar­ing op­tions. There’s also a two-fin­ger-tap mul­ti­ple-selec­tion ges­ture. How do you square adding these new ges­tures with mov­ing away from con­trol-clicks?

I don’t think even Ap­ple knows the an­swers to these ques­tions. But I do think it’s ex­plor­ing them, and the prospect of apps be­ing brought over from IOS to macos (as well as the ad­vent of new apps be­ing built us­ing Swif­tui) has opened a gi­gan­tic can of worms in terms of how these in­ter­faces should look and work.

As the plat­form owner, Ap­ple does get to drive that process and make those calls. Un­for­tu­nately, right now it doesn’t seem to know what it wants. In the mean­time, it will be up to third-party app de­vel­op­ers to do the best they can to make great Mac apps—and to not blame their tools if they fall short of that stan­dard. ■

The News app was one of four apps in macos Mo­jave that was imported from IOS.

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