Monday, June 26, 2023

Elegy for the Native Mac App

Keaton Brandt (Reddit):

To the old-school Mac community, installing some shitty cross-platform Java app on their pristine Macbook was an admission of defeat. Even web apps were avoided whenever possible. They saw the use of such software as a tacit acknowledgement that the PC and its “ugly but effective” mindset had won. The point of paying double the price of a PC was to buy an elevated computing experience, and that had to extend to every third-party app on the system.


Many of the great Mac apps are forgotten or abandoned now. MacHeist is a grotesquely reanimated corpse. The golden age is over. The question isn’t whether Sketch will succeed because it’s a beautiful Mac app, but rather whether it can succeed in spite of that.


We’ve moved on from the era of beautiful Mac software to the era of web-based apps, for better and for worse. There’s no one simple reason for this evolution, but it’s interesting to think through some of the factors.


As of 2023 Mac sales are reaching all-time highs, but Apple’s interest in the Mac as a platform is lackluster at best. This year’s macOS Sonoma release adds some cool new features, but also continues the larger trend of making macOS more like iOS and iPadOS. Apple’s big new ideas for Mac software: iOS widgets and progressive web apps.

Apple is still very interested in selling Macs — precision-milled aluminum computers with custom-designed chips and “XDR” screens. But they no longer care much about The Mac: The operating system, the software platform, its design sensibilities, its unique features, its vibes.

It seems like Apple’s greatest passion with the Mac for the last decade-plus has been security and privacy. If the first decade of Mac OS X was about expanding capabilities and designs, with Apple as a cheerleader for all apps, the second was about which features and business models you’re not allowed to use and trying to minimize the regressions and friction that the system imposes in the name of protecting users.

Via Steve Harris:

Closer to home, I also agree that these days Apple’s bundled apps are going places previously only third-party devs would dare tread, and that worries me a little. Indeed, apps like Reminders and Notes in particular are very capable now, and if you’re an indie starting out, wanting to do something in that area, those apps will set the baseline, which is a lot. Additional to that, it’s not easy getting things out of those apps (particularly Notes, with all its new features), and so users will remain locked in.

However, the biggest pain point for any developer is making an app cross-platform, potentially on macOS, Windows, iOS, and Android, with perhaps some kind of web version too. It takes a lot of time and effort to make native apps, sometimes an equal amount for each platform, because savings on the things they share tends to get devoured by gnarly platform-specific considerations.

Apple’s answers to that are Apple-only solutions that won’t serve Android or Windows — porting iPad apps with Mac Catalyst, or adopting SwiftUI — and neither are anywhere close to zero effort to deploy across platforms, and nor do they provide a truly first-class experience on Mac right now. These technologies would be perfect for indie developers that only want to target Apple’s platforms, except that I know my existing apps’ users wouldn’t accept either, because the apps would turn out less integrated and therefore less powerful.

Core Intuition:

How do we prioritize native platform development while maximizing the ability to deploy to all of Apple’s platforms? They talk about investing time into new platforms and frameworks when the investment will pay off, vs. when the work will be wasted on short-term workaround.


Update (2023-06-27): Colin Devroe:

I hate that this resonates so clearly. I’ve heard others mention that “there is no one left inside Apple that knows what a good Mac app is” and I tend to agree. While Notes and Reminders are good apps, the OS they run on (and, subsequently, the design guidelines they must live within) are just not as good as earlier versions of macOS.

I do think things can turn for the better: higher contrast, easier to detect focus, leave behind the aversion to texture and shading, stop hiding UI.

Jeff Johnson:

A good article that I largely agree with.

Steve Harris’s article is also very good and brings up crucial points about how the Mac App Store harmed the platform. I’d also mention how the Mac App Store brought the iOS race to the bottom to some extent.

One more thing: the relentless yearly OS release cycle takes away a lot of time from Mac devs, as well as frequently taking away features, adding new restrictions, changing the whole Mac UI design, and adding new bugs.

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Just out of curiosity, are iOS apps still mostly web views theses days?

Nah. There was a brief moment when web app wrappers seemed to be taking over iOS, but that hasn't really happened.

Most iOS apps aren't web views. They're either UIKit/SwiftUI, or they use a cross-platform framework such as React Native, Flutter, Xamarin Forms / MAUI, etc.

I think the discussion on Core Intuition underlined some good points. Experienced indie developers, who understand how long it takes to actually become productive with a new framework and who don't get paid for their time spent learning, don't want to invest time in learning a new framework until most of the issues and edge cases are ironed out.

Old Unix Geek

I think this malaise is industry wide.

Recently I saw a career page that distinguished between "creatives" and "engineering". As if engineering is inherently boring and uncreative, but drawing things badly or managing a project was creative. Given the creativity I remember among my peers in the 80s 90s, and early 2000s I was truly shocked.

I thought perhaps I had been unlucky the last decade or so, but apparently, this is a common experience these days... Kind of makes sense -- I can't really think of any software that made me think "Wow! how did they do that?" or "That will improve the world!" that came out recently, except the improvement in machine translation which dates to 2008 and automatically generated subtitles in youtube videos... It's pretty funny when the "wave of the future" seems to be podcasts.

And like Jeff says, Apple adding barriers, and screwing with the meaning of terms like how NSViews work, just adds busy work for no benefit. If I had dreamed of being an (uncreative) administrator, following the latest regulations from on high to the letter, I would have chosen that as a career.

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