Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Case Against Marzipan

Uluroo (tweet):

Touch and cursors are diametrically opposed interface design paradigms. To prioritize one is to compromise the other. Clearly it would be a mistake to put macOS on the iPhone, or to put iOS on the Mac. You would end up with an interface that was either too dense or too spread-out for the hardware it ran on. If it’s bad for operating systems to cross the boundaries of platforms, why does anyone think it will be good for apps to? They play by the same rules as anything else.


Apple should be setting the example for third-party developers. When it’s not making good software, developers shouldn’t be expected to. Apple is the root of the problem here; its apps, the shining beacon that attracts developers to this new API, are so bad it’s not even funny.


Marzipan is the antithesis of the Mac. It is a slow venom that, if it spreads far enough, will kill everything that makes the Mac worth having. At this point, it seems unlikely that Apple will administer the antidote and give Marzipan the axe. But that’s what needs to happen.

Previously: The Mojave Marzipan Apps, Electron and the Decline of Native Apps.

Update (2018-12-23): Gregory Sapienza:

Problem is: without this initiative Apple would be handing over macOS to the world of electron indefinitely


I agree that Marzipan isn’t the bottom of the scale, but that doesn’t justify its existence. Another alternative is real, good apps.

Part of what makes this annoying is Apple’s own cross-platform work. For first-party apps, Apple should not consider Marzipan acceptable.

Apple should be setting the example for developers. If News and Stocks had been well-made apps, optimized for macOS, maybe I wouldn’t be so convinced that Marzipan is bad. But Apple has not just made the development process easier — it’s lowered its own design standards.

Drew McCormack:

Don’t really get the fear mongering around Marzipan. Will the Marzipan apps be great apps? Nope. Will it mean at least we have some apps where there were none? Yep. Is there always an opportunity for a good Mac dev to make a quality product stealing the whole show? Yep.

At the micro level, this is probably true. But what about the ecosystem as a whole? It does not bode well that Apple is either unable or unwilling to do a good job—either for Apple’s commitment to the Mac platform or for the ability of Marzipan to make good apps possible. Secondly, an onslaught of these types of apps, blessed by Apple, will shift the standards of what users will put up with, reducing the taste for quality. And Apple will fill the Mac App Store with them, making it harder to find the gems.

Craig Scott:

It will result in an expectation of buy once, run everywhere - and the once will be at iOS prices. This will make Mac development less profitable - hence fewer high quality apps.

Alastair Houghton:

IMO the real worry (as a user as much as a developer) is that maybe we’re importing the obnoxious iOS ecosystem and all its sharp practices to macOS?

Update (2018-12-27): See also: The Talk Show.

Steve Troughton-Smith:

Loved the Marzipan discussion, but people really need to temper the ‘of course Marzipan isn’t the /real/ solution’ discussion. What on earth about Apple’s last decade suggests to you that they have the bandwidth for yet a third platform in the wings to be the ‘real’ way forward?

Steve Troughton-Smith:

I don’t think you could choose to make Marzipan happen today, 8 yrs after they should have started that work, w/o having spent yrs following the ideal path down the rabbit hole & leaving w/ nothing to show for it. Should have been Plan A a decade ago, but no way it’s Plan A today

Indeed, one of the most puzzling aspects of Marzipan is its timing. In 2011 or so, I thought Apple must be on the verge of introducing something like this. That it took so long and yet still seems so rough is surprising.

Steve Troughton-Smith:

Personally, I would treat Marzipan as an ‘all hands on deck’ project. Everybody across iOS and macOS at Apple needs to make this not just work, but be a great desktop platform, and the primary focus of desktop app development at Apple from now on. Dogfood the heck out of it

I’m embracing it because either this works or the Mac dies. I don’t think it’s the right solution and it’s not what I would have done at this stage of the platform’s evolution. I would have committed to killing macOS a decade ago and spent the decade making iOS fit to replace it

Francisco Tolmasky:

It’s really hard to understand what is needed from a framework if you’re not writing innovative apps. If Apple were still striving to make iWork or FCP quality apps, they’d have more insight into other paths to follow. “Pure framework” design with only toy apps is dangerous.

Riccardo Mori:

I would have committed to, you know, just make Mac OS –AND– iOS better. Apple ought to have enough resources to do just that.

Pieter Omvlee:

I think it should have started 10 years ago with unifying basic APIs and classes and then build up from that. It’s a bit too late for that now so I understand the why behind Marzipan though it saddens me

9 Comments RSS · Twitter

>Touch and cursors are diametrically opposed interface design paradigms

They're not. Windows has gained a lot from making its user interface more touch-friendly, even if you're using a mouse. Larger touch targets and cleaner, less cluttered user interfaces are a benefit to everybody. The problem with iOS is not that it is touch-friendly, the problem with iOS is that it is a locked-down, disempowering gated community.

@Lukas When I see “cleaner, less cluttered” I see “lower information density, less efficient.” I’ve seen a bunch of (non-Marzipan) Mac apps go through this sort of redesign as part of developing iOS versions, and years later I still prefer the originals.

Same can be said for websites/apps -- aesthetically, the "mobile-first" push has flooded us with sites/apps that are adequate to read/use on a smartphone, but quite a pain to use on desktops.

>lower information density

My complaint is not about information density. I probably shouldn't have said "less cluttered", since that isn't really what I meant. I mean, I do prefer user interfaces with less clutter, but generally not at the expense of information density.

I agree that mobile and tablet apps tend to have too low information density, and they should fix that, particularly since they have smaller screens, so there's less space to begin with. Making poor use of the small amount of space available is a bad choice. So I agree with that.

My specific complaint is about the size of interactive elements, i.e. about the idea that "touch and cursors are diametrically opposed interface design paradigms." I disagree with that. What's good for touch is also good for cursors.

During the last three decades, interactive things on screens have had the tendency to shrink. My Mac SE's window close button's real-world on-screen measured size is 3.4×3.4mm. On my MacBook Pro, it's now down to 2.6×2.6mm. If I switch to the high-res option, which I prefer, because I do want high information density, that goes down to 2×2mm, which, imo, is ridiculously small for something you expect people to click hundreds of times every day.

Meanwhile, on my Surface Book, it's 8.4×6mm. Text on its screen is just as small and crisp as on the MacBook, so information density is generally unaffected, but its interactive elements are larger.

Other examples where desktop Windows benefits from touch interactions is the new Windows 10 start menu, and the improved tiling window manager. These were designed for touch devices, but they also make mouse-driven devices better.

Touch and mouse are *not* diametrically opposed interface design paradigms. What's good for touch devices also improves the desktop experience, and what suck on desktop devices (e.g. user interfaces will low information density) are even more annoying on touch devices. Instead of framing this as "touch vs mouse", I think it's more of an issue of just "good vs bad".

Some design concepts that have been popularized on touchscreen devices are good. Some are bad. Similarly, some desktop design trends have been good, and some have been bad. The goal should be to combine the best of both world.

While I don't doubt that there's a lot riding on how good Marzipan becomes, I think you can't ignore the Electron elephant in the room. Apple *needs* a response to Electron, or they'll find themselves in a place where they don't own the app framework most apps are using. It's already gone a long way – five or six years ago, the tools I most used for work were TextMate and Skype, both native macOS apps. Now, I use VS Code (Electron), Slack (Electron), and Skype (now re-written using… Electron). Even for my personal use, an Electron app (WhatsApp) has replaced a native one (Adium).

In the case of VS Code, there are of course native equivalents still, so my using it is more of a conscious choice based on trade-offs (it has great Python support, so I'll sacrifice nativeness for that). The others I use because I have to.

Apple can't just carry on as if Electron doesn't exist, and the best leverage they have is to make it stupidly easy to port over apps from iOS.

Will Marzipan apps actually be better/nicer to use than Electron apps? Some Electron apps like VS Code have some native features like sheets for dialogs, and they can integrate with Services if the effort is put in. Will Marzipan apps have these affordances?

I think what everyone's forgetting here is that marzipan is a yellow paste made of ground almonds.

The solution is to focus on the Mac and make it better, not introduce a worse framework to try to make it better.

I like a lot of the things Troughton-Smith on other topics. But on Marzipan he's dead wrong.

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