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Apple says Mac Catalyst is working. We asked developers to find out the truth

Apple’s Mac Catalyst project seems harmless enough. It provides a simple way for iOS developers to bring their apps to the Mac — a win-win scenario for both developers and Apple, right?

Well, yes. But if you’re judging by history, the stakes are high. Bridging the gap between the worlds of mobile and desktop appears a Herculean task given their different goals, problems, and support issues. Microsoft has failed at the transition multiple times, and Apple itself has steered clear of the attempt for many years.

The early efforts didn’t inspire a lot of confidence, but now that the project has been underway for almost nine months, it’s time to take stock of where Catalyst is really at.

Is Apple’s vision for the future of the Mac working for developers?

It’s not a magic checkbox

Rumors of Apple “merging” MacOS and iOS have made the rounds for years, despite Apple addressing it head-on at a keynote. That’s not what Mac Catalyst is.

Rather, it’s a set of tools that allow developers to quickly and easily port their iPad apps across to the Mac. In the simplest scenario, developers can just tick a checkbox in XCode (Apple’s software development app), and most of the heavy lifting will be done for them.

Perjan Duro is the founder of financial app MoneyCoach, and he’s one of the first developers we spoke to about Catalyst. He said that converting his team’s apps from iPad to Mac was “one of the highlights of the summer” after Apple introduced Mac Catalyst developer tools at WWDC in June 2019. That’s in part because it provided an opportunity to revamp the app’s design, leading to many improvements and added functionality.

“Eighty percent of the time, it gets the job done.”

“If you work on an iPadOS app and optimize it for the Mac, you save on time and costs,” Duro said.

He told us he thought the technology was “very promising,” although whether or not a developer should use it depends on the “use case of the app and the technologies that it uses. Eighty percent of the time, it gets the job done.”

But Catalyst really only takes care of the back-end stuff — providing mouse and window support, enabling the app to actually run on a Mac, that sort of thing. Much of the front-end work, such as customizing the app’s appearance and adding extra features, is down to developers. Apple told us that it sees Mac Catalyst as more of an enabler for developers than anything else, a set of tools that are there should developers choose to port their iPad apps to a new platform.

Duro says Catalyst does more than just save time — it breaks down barriers that may have stopped developers bringing their apps to new platforms.

“We wanted to see MoneyCoach on the Mac since its conception,” he admits. “We managed to make it happen only last year. That gives me joy, and makes me forget about the challenging times.”

Apple isn’t framing it as a magic system that instantly turns an app that feels at home on an iPad into one that looks and feels exactly like a Mac app. Rather, Apple is providing the basic tools. It’s up to developers to take those tools and run with them.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Long term, Apple says the goal is to create a better, more seamless experience for developers and users alike. An example the company gave us was that of Swift Playgrounds, Apple’s coding app that teaches people to create real apps using the Swift programming language. Swift Playgrounds itself is a Mac Catalyst app that enables learners to get the same experience whether they’re creating code on an iPad or a Mac. That’s the kind of uninterrupted experience Apple wants to become more common with Mac Catalyst.

Apple went first, like any good leader, replacing the legacy iTunes app with three separate Catalyst apps. The initial batch didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Longtime Mac users like myself were forced to question whether the pseudo marriage of the two platforms was leading to the platform losing its soul.

Early attempts can be forgiven. The true test would be how third-party developers used these tools. Beyond the initial cycle of developers giving it a go, I spoke to some developers who were dipping their toe into the world of Mac apps. To my surprise, most of them were loving it.

From iPad to Mac in minutes

Even without any tweaks, seeing an iPad app running smoothly on a Mac was a thrilling experience for many developers I spoke to.

Atlassian is a software company based out of Sydney, Australia, and known for the issue-tracking application Jira. I spoke to Simon Stiefel, a senior engineer for the company, who was quite positive about how Catalyst helped Atlassian kick off its Mac development.

“Apple has done a great job bringing the iOS APIs over to MacOS, and with Catalyst we were able to jump-start our MacOS application by using most of the code we’ve already written for iOS,” Stiefel told me. “It was very exciting to see our iPad app running on a desktop for the first time.”

MacOS Catalina Hands-on | Macbook Pro
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Kriss Smolka, founder of HabitMinder creator Funn Media, was also excited to get started. He dove right in with Mac Catalyst at WWDC 2019, saying it took him and his team under three days to port HabitMinder to the Mac.

According to Smolka, about 80% of the app’s features worked right out of the box, with the rest requiring a little tweaking to get working. Seeing a functioning app so quickly is encouraging for developers. That’s particularly true for smaller teams who may not have the resources to spend an eternity tweaking and problem-solving to get their apps working on a new platform.

“It was extremely fast to get Fiery Feeds to run on MacOS,” said Lukas Burgstaller of Cocoacake Software, whose apps range from an RSS reader to an iOS music player for falling asleep.

For many developers, creating a Mac version of their iPad app was a dream come true.

“It was an iPad app, and within half an hour I had a working version of the Mac app,” Burgstaller told me. “Think exactly the iPad app running with a window border. It took about four months to get to something that looks and feels halfway like an actual Mac app… doing the same with AppKit would have taken 1-2 years — which is why I haven’t done a Mac app before.”

For many developers, creating a Mac version of their iPad app was a dream that couldn’t previously be realized due to the time and effort required to create a Mac app. Mac Catalyst made all the difference.

But that’s only one side of the story.

When two worlds collide

The calculator app PCalc has long been a familiar piece of Mac software. But developer James Thomson has so far decided against using Mac Catalyst to port it from the iPad. In October 2019, he laid out his reasons why, citing APIs that felt “unfinished” and out of place design choices, such as the aforementioned iOS-style date picker.

He ultimately deemed porting PCalc using Mac Catalyst to be too risky for his flagship app. When I spoke to him later about his impressions of Catalyst, he told me he had decided to port his simpler Dice app “to keep an eye on the technology.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

This hesitance to commit to a new piece of technology is nothing new. Take, for example, the situation Microsoft has been in for a number of years. The company’s repeated attempts to help its developers move from one system to another has resulted in one failure after another.

Microsoft has struggled to win over its legacy Win32 developers and convince them the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) is the way to go. Ambitious ideas like Windows RT, Windows 10 Mobile, Windows 10 S, and even the Surface Pro X, have fallen by the wayside as a result. Microsoft’s new approach seems to be to just mash everything together — apps for Win32, UWP, the web (and even Android on its Surface Duo device) — in Windows 10X. It’s a safe way to go, though it can lead to an operating system that feels like a bunch of pieces stitched together, rather than a single unified experience.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Microsoft’s flailing illustrates just how tricky it can be to pair two platforms together. Apple faces less of a battle convincing Mac developers of the benefits of Mac Catalyst because the process is (for now) one way. Mac developers aren’t being asked to make their apps work on iPads, after all.

But Catalyst does change things. All of a sudden, Apple is supporting Mac apps that were created using both the traditional tools and those made with Catalyst.

If talk of Apple switching from Intel chips to Apple-made ARM processors ends up being true, it may be worth the trouble. The rumors have ramped up recently, with noted industry analyst Ming-Chi Kuo predicting the company will make the change within the next 18 months.

The current battle to make Mac Catalyst apps feel Mac-like.

A set of tools like Mac Catalyst, which makes it simple for developers to take an app designed for one system and port it over to another, could be invaluable in such a transition, allowing the ARM-based Mac ecosystem to quickly repopulate with native apps from the get go. Apple’s iPads already run on ARM-based processors; if Macs were to follow suit, Mac Catalyst apps would already be perfectly positioned to run on both platforms.

For now, the current battle is to make Mac Catalyst apps feel Mac-like, something many apps have struggled to do. Currently, many of them lack the standard design conventions that for years have guided Mac users on how they can expect apps to behave.

These should improve over time as iPad developers get a firmer grip on Catalyst, and as the system continues to evolve. As I learned from speaking with developers, they have some ideas for exactly how that should happen.

Workarounds, future requests, and brick walls

Since developers first got their hands on it at WWDC 2019, Mac Catalyst has seen several improvements spurred by user feedback. A more Mac-like date picker just made its debut, for example, replacing a design that was jarringly reminiscent of iOS.

Apple told us that it’s constantly talking to developers and listening to feedback on how to improve Mac Catalyst. It also pointed out the technology is very new, and is going to continue evolving over time. Many of the developers we spoke to mirrored that sentiment, telling us they had an ongoing dialog with Apple regarding any issues they were having.

Another much-requested feature is a universal purchase system, where a Mac Catalyst app bought on an iPad will work on a Mac, and vice versa. Reutter told us of his frustration at having to recreate purchase and subscription options for each platform, and it seems Apple has taken the criticism on board, as it recently announced the addition of universal purchases for products on the App Store.

Macbook Air (2018) Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

Elsewhere, other developers were able to implement the features they wanted, but only with various hacks and makeshift solutions.

“Transitioning from iPadOS to MacOS via Catalyst has been easy on one side, but riddled with mysteries and workarounds on the other side,” Duro from MoneyCoach told me.

Duro had an extensive list of requests for future versions of Mac Catalyst, including “more native AppKit UI elements, better documentation, more examples, and a unified way to manage IAPs and subscriptions.”

Meanwhile, for Reutter, porting an iPad app to the Mac meant having to “remove some iOS features that could have been great on MacOS,” including Siri support, Messages extensions, and Shortcuts integration. While he hopes this functionality will be added soon, having to remove features that are present in an iPad app when it’s ported to the nominally more powerful Mac is a discouraging experience for any developer.

What’s clear from all these requests is that Mac Catalyst is far from the finished article.

Others are having to rely on workarounds to overcome the current limitations of Catalyst. One developer noted that horizontal scrolling had to be sacrificed, while another had to to import several AppKit bundles such as dropdown menus and modal alerts. Others still requested more native Mac gestures, AppKit-like controls and views, and better window management beyond the limited implementation currently in place.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Jourdan of the GoodNotes app was looking for “more design and development guidelines for Catalyst apps” to help navigate the new territory.

What’s clear from all these requests is that Mac Catalyst is far from the finished article, with many features absent that perhaps should have been present upon launch.

The future of Mac Catalyst

Those limitations haven’t put a dent in the confidence of developers we spoke to. When we asked whether they would use it to make apps in the future, the answer was a resounding “yes.” Stiefel described it as “a great tool to have in the toolbox,” adding that other developers should at least take a look at it to see if it can be of use.

Smolka and Burgstaller both told us they had more apps in the works that will be ported using Mac Catalyst. Smolka “highly recommend[s]” Mac Catalyst, adding: “If your apps already have good iPad support, don’t wait and start moving them over to Mac. It will save you time… With AppKit, we would have to spend way longer to create Mac apps. Our apps are simple to use and don’t have complex functions, which allows us easily to use Mac Catalyst.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Even Thomson, who’s invested a lot in native Mac apps over the years, told us that a lot has improved with Mac Catalyst since he wrote his blog post.

“If additional Mac-like controls came to iOS and Catalyst, I would definitely consider it again for PCalc,” he explained. “It’s made development of Dice very straightforward, using the same code on multiple platforms… I’m still very hopeful Catalyst can fulfill its promise.”

Reutter and Jourdan both recommended Mac Catalyst, with the caveat that it had to be right for the situation at hand. If an iPad app makes sense on the Mac — for example, with the Mac app acting as a companion to its iPad equivalent — then Mac Catalyst can make a lot of sense and ensure feature parity across platforms. That said, Jourdan cautioned that “If the Mac version requires an entirely different architecture than the iPad app, Catalyst may not be the right choice.”

As Apple stated from the beginning, Catalyst is a set of tools to help developers port their apps, not as a one-size-fits-all solution. As its name suggests, it’s merely meant to spark the beginning of something new. For the most part, it’s a project developers seem to be grateful for, even if it clearly has some way to go.

WWDC could be a crunch moment where we find out how committed Apple is to Catalyst.

All of this is a good sign for Apple. If the company truly does intend to switch to ARM processors and create a more unified app platform, Catalyst is taking the first step toward making that happen. The jury is still out on whether or not Apple will someday force its developers into the Mac App Store and Catalyst, but that day of reckoning is still in the realm of the hypothetical.

WWDC in June could be a crunch moment where we find out exactly how committed Apple is to Catalyst future. No doubt it’s a date every developer that’s been affected by it will be awaiting with bated breath.

For now, if Mac Catalyst is able to encourage more developers to bring their apps to Apple’s other devices, that’ll likely have positive effects for everyone involved. Developers will reach new audiences, users will get new Mac apps, and Apple will get a strengthened, more vibrant ecosystem — not to mention a slice of the revenues, too.

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