Monday, March 7, 2022

Mac Software Stagnation

Riccardo Mori (tweet):

In other words, if I open my toolbox with all the essential Mac apps I use on a daily basis for everything I do, what I see are old (some very old), tried-and-trusted applications[…]


This may be a completely subjective observation, but I’ve been feeling a certain stagnation in Mac software these past few years. There are always exceptions and things I’ve missed, sure, but it seems to me that the landscape appears to be more tired than vibrant.


The problem is that, while it’s true that iOS and Mac OS have remained two separate operating systems, Apple has been really pushing to have them both work in the same way when it comes to their underpinnings.


Remember when I was pointing out that iPads were becoming incredibly powerful machines but with an OS that wasn’t capable of taking full advantage of that amazing hardware? Apple has managed to put the Mac in a similar position, in my opinion.

Tyler Hall:

Making cross-platform apps easy by removing the engineering friction is what I consider the root cause of so many iPad turned sub-par Mac apps.


Catalyst, today, is somewhere in the middle. Not bad. Not great. It mainly “just works” with minimal effort in a way that is accessible to the larger pool of iOS developers. Apple succeeded with the goal Riccardo laid out. And we end up with apps that typically fall somewhere in between serviceable and usable - an uncanny valley of mish-mashed blah.

Tyler Hall:

Anyway, I made it for iPad. And after I finished, thought, “I wonder if this whole Catalyst thing works?”

And it did. Thirty minutes later it was running on my Mac. Bravo, Apple.

But the flip side - that aligns with my original thesis - is that while it works and is serviceable as a Mac app, it’s a terrible Mac app. Unfortunately, because it does cross over the threshold of being just good enough for my needs, I have very little reason or motivation to ever make it any better on macOS since that’s not my target platform for this app. That it works at all on a Mac is a happy bonus.

Christian Tietze (Hacker News):

I also don’t have any “new” apps, which in Riccardo’s sense doesn’t mean a new purchase in my library, but a new app on the marketplace.

Maybe because I’m not purchasing a lot of apps in general?

I’m pretty happy with most of the third-party apps that I use, and they are mostly apps I’ve been using for a long time, so to some extent this is just a sign of maturity. And these apps are not stagnant; they keep getting better. Maybe the flurry of activity with new apps in the early years of Mac OS X was the aberration. But I don’t think it’s that simple because there was also a lot of interesting stuff happening in the late 90s, when the classic Mac platform was mature—and Apple was doomed.

Sam Rowlands:

It’s my belief, the App Store has caused irrevocable harm to the Mac software industry.

There is ‘sideloading’, but the Mac Media is just a shell of it’s former self after Apple gutted it, with a bait & switch campaign of affiliate links.

Many indie developers can’t afford the kind of advertising that Apple’s “preferred” developers can.

So we’re forced to adopt a Minimize Risk attitude, which reduces indie devs incentives to allocate years into building a complex, complete, great Mac application.


All in all, developing for the macOS is not as great as it was 10 years ago, it’s become expensive to maintain a macOS application, which eats into the time an indie can be creative, and eats away at them emotionally.

Jeff Johnson:

What happened to the thriving 3rd party Mac software scene of the 2000s?

Many factors involved, but the theme is simple: the iOSification of the Mac, starting in 2011.

Preface: Mac hardware sales last quarter were 4.5x higher than 15 years ago. Mac has grown a lot, not shrunk.


Mac iOSification has undermined Mac developers financially, undermined them functionally, undermined their freedom to distribute, and undermined their workflow by constantly shipping OS bugs and breaking changes.

Apple has also badly undermined the Mac developer documentation.


The sad part is that Catalyst and native iOS apps running on macOS aren’t even the largest offenders. That title goes easily to all those who push „apps” written in Electron and similar. Compared to those, Catalyst is marvellous.

There’s also the matter of crappy documentation. I’m not a developer but this has been a recurring theme for years. Introduction of APFS is a great example. Major change with piss poor support articles. How can you write advanced software with crap like this?

There’s the lack of effort on Apple’s part too. Why would 3rd parties be interested in developing exceptional software when even the OS maker doesn’t seem to be that interested? Music is a great example here. There are exceptions (iWork) but that’s what they are, exceptions.


I think that (all faults aside) Setapp has done more good in terms of curating and giving easy access to quality Mac software than Apple over the past few years. If I had a new user in front of me I’d rather they sourced their apps from there rather than MAS, less overall crap.

Riccardo Mori:

I want to thank you all those who have given me valuable feedback on the topic so far, and I’ll definitely be adding other personal thoughts and external contributions in the future. This is a subject that’s particularly close to my heart, because at this stage I think that Mac users — especially power users — do need more than just professional, ultra-fast Macs. Great hardware without great software isn’t enough to make a platform thrive or continue to thrive.

Dave Winer:

Then I came across something I posted on Facebook a few years ago, imagining that a programmer from the 80s had time-traveled to the 2020s and wondered why we used such crappy writing tools, when in the 80s we had a remarkable variety of excellent writing tools. In evolution terms here’s my theory of what happened, and I admit I’m vastly simplifying this, I know a lot more about it because I lived through it, and made software in this period, and until recently was puzzled why some ideas took off and other good ideas did not.

In the early 90s a technological asteriod hit the software world called the web and wiped out all the GUI apps. To access the new network (the asteroid) all you needed was a web browser. And that was all that survived from the desktop operating systems of the 80s. The server operating system, Unix, came to dominate because it had the networking that the new world evolved from. The creatures from the network survived, the ones that lived on GUIs did not. To the animals that lived in UnixWorld, the web looked pretty amazing. But they liked their editors, and didn’t see the need for anything more. Further, the desktop writing tools couldn’t do the things a Unix programmer needed to do. So they just kept using the ones that came with Unix, Emacs and the like.

Evolution could have taken a different path in regards to eyes and writing tools. If the first life evolved on land, our eyes would see much better in air. If the Macintosh developed open and easy networking as Unix had, making the switch to the web unnecessary, we could have kept using all our wizzy writing tools.


Update (2022-03-09): See also: Hacker News.

8 Comments RSS · Twitter

One thing I've noticed dealing with the App Stores is that in the Good Old Days you'd build and release an app and customer feedback (and pushback) would make you polish it into a great mac app.

With the app store, you build and submit an app to the store, and Apple may or may not let it go for sale depending on whether it's doing anything that deviates from their list of pre-approved things that an App is allowed to do. We've gone from a space of full freedom that the market would constrain if anything didn't fit into the platform experience into a scenario where the constraints come first.

All in all it's hard to escape the impression that, effectively if not purposefully, Apple is discouraging the creation of native mac apps and has been for a while.

I think the above misses another point. The iPhone made developing apps expensive because people expect to have all three clients (and to be honest web and android too), with full parity and a cloud backend. Many indie developers don’t have the time of money to build all of these things.

At the same time they compete against the web and startup ecosystem. Figma vs Sketch best exemplifies how the nimbleness of a web app and start up funding can out maneuver and an indie native app.

I'm with Sam, of course the Mac software is stagnating in general, just like iOS software will, because Apple’s absolute control of the App Store and Mac App Store (and despite everything, the Mac App Store is where developers want to sell their apps) means that it is crazy to spend a huge amount of effort developing anything novel when there is a good chance Apple will simply say “nope” and trash it all. Why would a developer risk this?

Why build something new and novel when Apple might just refuse to let you sell it - then you are on the hook for writing a licensing system, partnering with a payment processor, building a customer database, and trying to figure out how to ensure you have a sufficiently good reputation that folks are willing to fight their way through Apple’s scary third party warnings to install your stuff.

All the cool new apps are web apps. If you're investing into building a powerful (and thus expensive to build) new application, and you're making it Mac-only, you're throwing your money away. Not only are you cutting off the majority of your potential customers, you're also cutting off essentially all enterprise sales.

Compared to the effects the web has had on application development, the effect that stuff like Catalyst or the Mac App Store have is borderline irrelevant.

I think Plume's analysis is correct for the status quo, but I also think this isn't a law of nature. When Apple launched Mac OS X, they didn't just iterate on Platinum a little and called it a day (they did that for Mac OS X Server 1.0, though). Instead, they shipped the first compositing GUI. It wasn't necessary, and it was also a performance drain, but other OSes clearly agreed that it was the path forward. Another example: Numbers didn't just clone Excel — instead, it reenvisioned how a worksheet should behave, and made the layouting abilities far superior. (Sadly, the competition so far hasn't picked that bit up.) iPhone OS 1.0 wasn't a me-too product amongst PalmOS, Windows Mobile, and BlackberryOS. It was way ahead in some areas, such as gesture interaction, and its web browser.

These days, it feels like a lot of Apple software doesn't really push forward in the way it did in the 2000s. It isn't necessarily terrible, just honestly often mediocre. Apple's TV app, for example, should've been the one that proves Siracusa in that TV streaming apps can be better; instead, it's only about as good as the competition.

So we got a trajectory where native apps have become stale, boring, mediocre. Meanwhile, web apps have become more and more capable. They also have some benefits (or downsides, depending on whom you're asking). The way to compete — and I really think this is a bit of an existential threat for the Mac platform, because if you don't compete, why not just use a Chromebook for a tenth the price? — isn't to artificially slow the evolution of web apps; it's to make developing and using Mac apps more compelling. Some decisions like locking macOS down a lot more, and moving from a single UI toolkit to three, may have been necessary, and may be stopgaps, but that doesn't make them any less painful. And it does lead to situations where developers look at the landscape, briefly ponder it, and eventually decide: you know what? I'll go with Electron aftera ll.

I'll just toss in my two cents here and say that I've been intentionally staying on macOS 10.14 because I've seen the UX degradation of macOS itself and the decreasing quality and quantity of mac software, and I decided that I don't want it. My mac works great the way it is, and I see pretty much only downside and compromise if I upgrade. Very little of the new features that Apple offers matter to me. The new iOSified user interface on the mac sucks, plain and simple. Catalyst apps suck. Electron apps suck. And I hate the mac app store because of what it forces developers to do, what it represents, and because it's just god damned buggy and annoying to use compared to download and installing apps myself. (Not sideloading! Who the hell decided installing software on a computer, one of the most basic things you do with a computer, is now this less important, auxiliary thing called sideloading?)

What matters is being able to use my mac the way I want, with the software I want, without any restrictions, and I don't feel like I can do that with BIg Sur or Monterey. Apple Silicon, for all of its great qualities, just makes this even worse. And I've barely even addressed how much more buggy these new versions of macOS are compared to 10.13 or 10.14.

Sadly I don't know how much longer I can keep this up, because eventually I'll get to a point where my work requires me to use a newer version of macOS. And when that day comes, my life will get noticeably worse and more aggravating. I hate Apple now, partly because of all of the stupid developer hostile things they do, but mainly because they took the best computing platform we had -- the mac -- and ruined it.

Old Unix Geek

Apparently Apple is also now using WebApps in System Preferences...

@ OUG: I imagine that's mostly (entirely?) for things that change out of band with their OSes.

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