Apple’s Converging Platforms

Yesterday, Apple announced that it was transitioning its Mac line of computers from Intel microprocessors to “Apple Silicon,” the same ARM-based processors that power its iPhone, iPad, AppleTV, and Apple Watch. The company also announced iOS 14, iPadOS 14, and macOS 11 (au revoir, Mac OS X), which they may as well call macOS 14 to align the public numbering scheme.

The obvious, and long-anticipated, conclusion from these announcements is that Apple will gain the kind of control over the essential components in its Mac product line that it has over its other devices. The Mac has long been constrained in performance and product release timeframes by Intel. All of Apple’s non-Mac devices tend to get updated frequently, including annual updates for the iPhone that always include new A series chips, or more accurately, systems on chips that Apple can custom design to meet the demands of the hardware the chips power.

For example, Apple’s chips can contain multiple cores that serve different purposes, such as four cores for performance and 2 for efficiency. Because Apple also controls the operating system, they can tune it to take advantage of this architecture to achieve an unmatched performance-per-watt rating. This allows devices to have smaller batteries and run cooler while achieving long battery life. While Apple’s MacBook lines are not bad in terms of battery life, there is room for dramatic improvement. There are many other technical advantages to this transition, but it’s the user experience that is the real game-changer.

First, let’s consider developers. Using a combination of Universal 2 and Rosetta 2, Apple claims that developers writing new apps for Apple Silicon will only have to compile one binary to run native and on Intel processors, and that apps that run on Intel processors will run on Apple Silicon. The company also claims that porting Intel apps to the new native environment may take only a matter of days. If they can deliver on these promises, the user experience for developers will be mostly seamless: it will require a low-level of effort to support both chipsets in the near term, and the two-year planned transition affords them time to embrace this new code once, deploy everywhere (CODE) paradigm.

iPad app developers should also benefit from what appear to be much-needed improvements to Catalyst, the tech that allows iPad apps to run on Macs. Critics have assailed Catalyst apps for missing inherent Mac functionality, like support for multiple windows in a single app. Notes on Catalyst point out that it features new controls to make your iPadOS apps more Mac-like when porting them, with multiple windows now an option. Again, if true, developers should have a relatively low-level of effort to publish Mac versions of their iPad apps that feel more like first-class citizens than current versions, which tend to be worse than most Electron apps.

But it’s the end user experience where this convergence really gets interesting. The updated UI design for macOS Big Sur, iOS 14, and iPadOS14 unifies the user experience in ways between the platforms not previously achieved. The biggest changes are on the Mac, which has been redesigned to look more like its iOS siblings. The icons embrace the richness afforded by retina displays and there is even more consistency between the icons on every device. In fact, I’m a tad surprised that the icons on iOS and iPadOS haven’t been updated to be the same as on macOS; perhaps they will by the time of full release. The redesign of several macOS apps like Mail, Music, and Podcasts bring them more inline with their iOS counterparts as well. Even Widgets and Control Center look very much like they were taken straight from the iOS design language.

There are a few worrisome signs. Sliders in Control Center look as though they are designed for a touch interface. Given the macOS presentation about all the detail-oriented changes in macOS to controls like sliders and toggles that appear to be optimized versions of existing macOS controls, perhaps this was a QA oversight. In general, we are witnessing what appears to be a three-year UI unification project across the platforms. It started with Catalyst last year, got the macOS and Catalyst updates this year, and will likely be complete next year after the full rollout of Macs on Apple Silicon.

If, and its a big if, Apple is able to achieve visual consistency in user experience design across all platforms while also making the proper affordances for differences in human interaction methods (mouse and trackpad versus touch), multi-window multi-taking, size of viewport, and primary usage, this is a good thing more than a bad thing. But the transition is likely to be filled with annoyances as they strive for the ideal.