Article: Macs in the Age of iOS

by on April 24, 2019

For the last few months, there have been a number of articles, posts on social media, and general grumbling about the state of iOS, macOS, what kind of company Apple is becoming, and what the future will bring. I’ve often found myself having knee-jerk reactions to things, comparing with my own experiences, and I’ve got a few different thoughts that I’d like to share.

I started with computers at a young age, learning BASIC on an Apple IIgs, moving to a Macintosh SE, then several other Macs until my current Mac mini. PCs were always around and I was fairly competent with them, but I preferred Apple’s offerings. I was often the go-to repair person for family, friends, and even helped out while I was in school. I found myself interested in all sorts of technology-related topics, learning as much as I could and some of that had led to the creation of this site.

I currently use an iPad for almost everything at my day job and the only other device in my office is a Asus Chromebit for a few things that require a “desktop” browser. I could use Microsoft Remote Desktop with one of the servers to get around that, but either way it’s a cheat. Any other time, it’s just got my email open as a second screen. For my personal stuff, I use an iPad almost all the time, with my Mac being there just because I happen to own it. It’s sleeping more often than not. The hours I used to spend customizing and playing with all sorts of things have long trailed off as I think I’ve mostly lost interest.

I think the world of technology tends to paint with broad brushes regarding usage and preference. “If it doesn’t work for me, it won’t work for anyone,” seems to be a common mindset that pops up on social media and discussion boards. iPads couldn’t possibly be used as computers and sometimes your geek cred is questioned if you can’t take the machine apart or drop it down to a command line. There’s also the notion that any change is for the worse and this seems amplified because there are a lot of terrible-for-society things happening in the technology industry these days.

The Mac has been a rather peculiar example lately. With each major OS update and each new piece of hardware, the overall feel is that it’s trending more towards being like an iOS device. While the Mac is certainly a popular product, not to mention that it’s the more mature platform, there are more iPhones in circulation—having devices that work alike makes a lot of sense from a sales standpoint. The hardware does get more locked down, more controlled, which has been the hallmark of iOS devices from day one. Brent Simmons provided an excellent essay capturing those feelings from someone who grew up with computers. I can’t say I disagree with the perceived changes and concern for the future of the Mac.

Ten year ago, you could buy a Mac and reasonably upgrade, repair, or replace many components. Compared with most PCs, tinkering with Macs was still a rather limited endeavor (anyone remember busting into Mac minis with putty knives?). However, advancements in performance, efficiency, and reliability have made it so that most people can keep computers longer without the need to upgrade or replace things. I do not like how Apple still ships iMacs with spinning hard drives, but the others with SSDs are often good enough for years. There’s always the what-ifs depending on a usage change, but for most people, a reasonably-specced out Mac could last quite awhile without feeling constrained. This just wasn’t the case back in the early-2000s when anything outside of Power Macs often felt old in about three years.

Next, with the idea of “Marzipan,” iOS apps can be brought to macOS and look and feel like their portable versions. This opens up a huge opportunity for the Mac to gain more applications and those who use iOS can hit the ground running with a Mac. There’s been debate that they’re not very Mac-like and I tend to agree—not counting iOS-style controls, some things act weird, but with only News, Stocks, Home, and Voice Memos, it’s a very first step. Functionally, they can bring new things to the Mac that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise (who else is putting HomeKit controls on a Mac?) I think the addition of this will be rocky and kind of awkward in the same way that Microsoft shoehorned touch-oriented “Metro”-style apps into Windows 8 and 10 and they run alongside things that look more suited to Windows 95. Once we get past it, the Mac will gain a lot of capabilities that the everyday computer user can appreciate.

Except here’s the thing, while it’s a different argument, I sort of feel that those pining for the Mac to keep everything “the old way” are a lot like the Apple II fans in the age of the early Macs. The writing was on the wall that Apple’s future was in a computer that was friendly and had mass-appeal, but was sealed off and (compared with the Apple II family) lacked the ability for the average person to customize and play to their heart’s content. You could customize the software on the early Macs, but it was within the constraints of the operating system. Many eventually moved to the Mac (a few probably jumped ship to PCs), but there were some holdouts that thought they could convince Apple to keep two separate, incompatible platforms going at once. At least iOS and macOS aren’t competing for space on your desktop or pocket.

While I can sympathize with those who are concerned of the direction of the Mac and what it means for their usage, the vast majority of Mac users probably won’t care because they’re using Macs like oversized iOS devices anyway. Outside of iOS development, Apple has basically said that you have a choice: pick a Mac that suits your needs and live with the weird macOS purgatory that we’re in right now or feel free to buy literally any other computer out there.

Notwithstanding, I’ve toyed with the idea of a small portable Mac (like the MacBook) replacing my iPad and Mac mini, especially if some of my favorite iOS apps made the jump. I could use as a do-everything computer, and it would almost be as portable as my current iPad. Unfortunately, Apple has decided that terrible, unreliable keyboards are fine. I have no interest in investing in a machine that has a known track record of failure. Plus, I’m currently pretty content with iOS, so I’m hoping to see refinements on that side of the house instead.

Essentially, there needs to be some give and take. Most people need to understand that macOS will continue to get more iOS-like for the benefit of the Mac’s future and be okay with that. Those who wish the Mac was exactly like the days of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard in 2007 need to understand that that was 12 years ago (that would be like those in 2007 wishing they were still running System 7.5). Apple needs to migrate their entire lineup to SSDs and do something about the terrible keyboards on their laptops. Developers need to think of how they can maximize each platform without lazily just porting iOS apps to the Mac without any concern for the way that platform works (think of how annoying iPhone apps are blown up on an iPad). Apple needs to provide some sort of broad roadmap for the Mac’s future—not necessarily details about future products, but the overall vision for the platform so that nobody is guessing where things stand.

It’s a strange time and there’s probably more sibling rivalry in Apple’s product family than during any other transition except the Apple II and Mac. Apple isn’t more fundamentally terrible in 2019 than they were in 2009 or 1999 or 1989, but our ideas of computers and what others need or prefer also needs to evolve. Like Jason Snell, I’m trying to keep an optimistic take take on where things are going, rather than my way being the only way. While iOS may win, the Mac certainly doesn’t have to lose.

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