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WWDC20 shows us where Apple is taking the Mac

What we can glean about where the Mac is headed after Monday’s big announcements.

By John Sherrod , written on June 23, 2020

From The Apple Desk

First impressions are just that, and it’s going to take time to process through all of the things Apple announced on Monday in the opening keynote of its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC).

And predicting the future is notoriously difficult. Apple doesn’t even fully know where they’ll be in five years. But given what we learned at the beginning of the week, I think we have a clearer sense of where Apple is headed.

Back To The Mac

Apple had a lot to say about all of its major software platforms on Monday — iOS, watchOS, tvOS, iPadOS, and macOS. But the Mac got by far the lion’s share of the news. Based on some of the reactions I’ve seen on social media, I think a lot of people are drawing the wrong conclusions.

Let’s start with what we knew was going to happen on Monday. Apple officially announced to the world that it’s going to transition the entire Mac line from Intel processors, to ARM-based processors designed entirely in-house by Apple. They plan to have the first of these new Macs out by the end of this year and complete the transition over the next two years.

The interesting thing is that Apple never once used the phrase “ARM” at WWDC, instead using the term “Apple Silicon” to describe its family of system-on-a-chip hardware. This move to Apple Silicon allows Apple to control more of its hardware and software integration, and also makes it less reliant on a key supplier in Intel whose interests don’t always align with Apple’s. Apple specifically cited the ability this move gives them to design chips that better meet its high performance, low power consumption goals.

It also allows Apple to bring more unity to its various device operating systems. This will make it easier for Apple’s entire developer base, the majority of whom have (for the last decade) solely been iOS developers, to build apps for the Mac. Apple even teased that you’ll be able to run unmodified iOS and iPadOS apps on your Apple Silicon-powered Mac in the future, though it gave us no details on how that will work from a user experience standpoint.

What was a complete surprise is how much Apple has rethought macOS design. Before showing us what macOS Big Sur will look like, Craig Federighi (Apple’s Senior Vice President, Software Engineering) described Big Sur as having the biggest design change since the introduction of Mac OS X twenty years ago. That certainly got my attention. And while it’s not the complete reinvention of macOS that that was, he’s not wrong. Big Sur adopts an awful lot of the iPadOS design language. App icons take on the rounded-corner rectangle design popularized by iOS. The Dock looks like iPadOS’s Dock. Widgets and sliders look like their iOS counterparts, and sidebars and toolbars look more like those on iPadOS.

All of these things are leading many to assume that Apple is one step closer to merging macOS and iOS. Now, if you look far enough down the corridors of time, you might see in the distant future a time where this happens, but I don’t think that’s at all what Apple was trying to signal on Monday.

For one thing, all of the people fixated on what the Mac is learning from the iPad have lost sight of just how much the iPad and iPhone have borrowed from the Mac. It’s like that optical illusion image where one person sees a rabbit and another person sees a duck. Some people look at the iPadOS and see an attempt to port the Mac user interface to a tablet. Others look at macOS and see the iPad subsuming the Mac. The reality is that all of Apple platforms are inspiring each other.

iPadOS’s trackpad cursor was inspired heavily by the experience of using the Apple TV’s Siri Remote. The new widgets in iOS 14 borrow a lot from the Apple Watch’s customizable faces. The iPad’s Files app borrows heavily from the Mac’s Finder, albeit created for a cloud-first (rather than local-first) file management scheme. And yes, in Big Sur macOS is learning a lot from iPadOS’s design language.

But I don’t think this is about merging macOS and iOS. It’s about making a more consistent user experience across all of Apple’s devices. If anything, last year’s introduction of a redesigned Mac Pro, Monday's announcement of a switch to Apple Silicon, and Big Sur’s huge UI overhaul demonstrates that Apple cares a lot about the Mac, and wants the Mac to remain the Mac, but be the best Mac we’ve seen.

And let’s also remember that this speculation about Apple merging iOS and macOS has been going on for at least a decade. It was in 2010 that Apple held it’s “Back To The Mac” event introducing Mac OS X Lion, which brought the App Store, Launchpad, and multitouch gestures via the trackpad to the Mac. Apple explained then that the Mac is the Mac, but there are things it can learn from iOS. I think that’s still Apple’s philosophy today, and we’re only two years removed from WWDC 2018 where Craig Federighi rhetorically asked the crowd if Apple was planning to merge iOS and macOS followed by the word “no” in giant letters dropping onto the screen behind him.

Here’s another way to think about it. If you remember the introduction of the iPhone back in 2007, Steve Jobs actually talked about it running OS X. They moved away from that language pretty quickly, but iOS was of course based on OS X and shared a lot of things in common with it under the hood. There’s a sense in which all of Apple’s devices share a core operating system. But they express themselves in ways unique to the devices they’re built for. That’s why Apple is so careful to give its operating system variants their own names. tvOS. watchOS. iOS. iPadOS. And macOS. That’s an acknowledgement that though these devices share a lot of commonalities, they also have some very important differences. This will remain the case for years to come.

Many are also speculating that Apple intends to bring touch screens to the Mac soon. As evidence they point to macOS Big Sur’s large sliders and more space between Menu Bar and toolbar elements.

I concede those changes certainly invite that speculation. The most obvious reason to bring touch screens to the Mac is that it’s the one major inconsistency between macOS and iOS from a user interaction standpoint. But my guess is it’s not going to happen. If you look more closely at Big Sur you’ll see that an awful lot of its UI is still optimized for the precision of a mouse pointer, and it would be difficult to use your finger to navigate it.

Remember too what else Federighi said in 2018, “We really feel that the ergonomics of using a Mac are that your hands are rested on a surface and that lifting your arm up to poke a screen is a pretty fatiguing thing to do.” Now you can certainly cite examples of Apple saying one thing only to do exactly the opposite not long after, but this view that multitouch on a Mac is best served via the trackpad goes all the way back to the Steve Jobs era. It’s hard for me to see touch screens coming to the Mac short of some entirely new Mac hardware, perhaps one where the screen could be turned around or folded in a way that makes it more tablet-like.

Where some are seeing Monday’s announcements as a sign that the Mac as we know it is nearing its end, I think the proper interpretations of all of Apple’s moves in the last few years indicate quite the opposite: that Apple still loves the Mac and sees an important future for it, even as Apple’s revenue pie continues to be dominated by other products and services.