Under the Radar

111: Universal Mac Apps?


00:00:00   Welcome to Under the Radar, a show about independent iOS app development.

00:00:04   I'm Mark Orment.

00:00:05   And I'm David Smith.

00:00:06   Under the Radar is never longer than 30 minutes, so let's get started.

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00:01:38   So our main topic today is we're going to talk through, this week there was an article

00:01:44   published on Bloomberg by Mark Gurman, which is, you know, the way many of these Apple

00:01:50   news things start.

00:01:53   And basically he has a tip, a lead, a rumor that Apple is working on a secret project

00:02:01   code named Marzipan, which is a project to create a unified system for iOS and Mac apps

00:02:12   to run together.

00:02:14   And this is something that we've talked about.

00:02:17   I was looking up and way back in the early days of the show, even, we were talking about

00:02:21   some of the challenges of being iOS developers and coming to the Mac and, you know, wishing

00:02:26   for there to be an easier path.

00:02:28   And so, you know, if this actually is a thing, which in a certain sense, like whenever I

00:02:34   saw this, it's like, it seems eventually this was going to happen, you know, to use the

00:02:40   infinite timescale argument, like this was somewhat inevitable that eventually Apple

00:02:44   was going to consolidate their platforms.

00:02:46   And if the rumor is true, and they're going to be doing it in, you know, next summer,

00:02:50   probably would be their goal, you know, with WWDC, iOS 12, the next version of Mac OS,

00:02:56   like it's going to be, if that's actually true, like this is a really interesting thing.

00:03:02   And I think it will create a lot of interesting opportunities for, you know, for development.

00:03:07   I think it would be really interesting from a learning, like the abilities that you get

00:03:14   from learning how to make Apple apps, that suddenly you can make them on multiple platforms

00:03:19   and distribute them and potentially in different ways.

00:03:21   I think it has a lot of implications potentially on the business side and is probably mixed

00:03:27   news for existing Mac developers that suddenly, you know, being a, all of the skills and things

00:03:33   that you have from being a Mac developer may be slightly less significant or unique.

00:03:39   So anyway, it seemed like an interesting thing to kind of unpack given, you know, given our

00:03:43   history with this topic.

00:03:44   - And you know, this is a huge disclaimer that this is just a rumor published in one

00:03:49   article literally today as we record, like an hour ago.

00:03:54   So this is not only like, you know, unabashedly our hot take on it and we haven't had a whole

00:03:59   lot of time to think about it and we have no additional information, but also it's simply

00:04:04   one article from Mark Gurman and his track record has been okay but not perfect.

00:04:08   So especially, you know, recently it seems like it's kind of getting worse honestly.

00:04:12   But you know, so take this all with a grain of salt.

00:04:15   This is a rumor.

00:04:16   This is not fact.

00:04:17   This has not been confirmed or commented on by Apple and probably won't be for some time

00:04:21   if ever.

00:04:22   So all that said, I am super excited about this.

00:04:28   So like to me, you know, I'm an iOS developer.

00:04:32   I happen to have made a couple of little Mac apps but it was like pulling teeth because

00:04:38   I am not an app kit expert.

00:04:40   I am not a Mac development expert.

00:04:42   Even though I have used the Mac for a very long time, I have not developed for it really

00:04:47   in any serious capacity ever.

00:04:49   I've done little toy things but that's about it.

00:04:53   So for me, when I program on the Mac, it feels, first of all, it feels very antiquated in

00:05:00   some ways.

00:05:01   Not everything, but in some ways because app kit is a much older API than UI kit.

00:05:06   It has a lot more baggage.

00:05:07   UI kit was created in part from the lessons they learned from app kit like 10 years earlier

00:05:12   or whatever it was.

00:05:14   So you know, app kit is very, very cumbersome for me as an iOS developer to use because

00:05:22   it's like take this thing that I'm familiar with and change a lot of how it works, add

00:05:27   a whole bunch of stuff you have to deal with, make a lot of stuff different for no good

00:05:31   reason by modern standards.

00:05:33   Maybe it was that way for some time or forever ago but now it's like if you look at what

00:05:38   the needs are now for these platforms, a lot of things are just different for no good reason

00:05:43   anymore or for legacy reasons that no longer apply or shouldn't need to apply.

00:05:49   And so app kit development is very slow, very cumbersome for iOS developers and because

00:05:57   of that, it's also just expensive.

00:06:00   In the time it takes and the resources it takes, if you have to hire Mac programmers,

00:06:07   there are way fewer of them than there are iOS programmers so it's probably more expensive

00:06:12   for big companies as well.

00:06:15   And the Mac user base is smaller than the iOS user base by a good amount.

00:06:20   And so the result of this has been so far that iOS developers, big and small, which

00:06:26   basically means all app developers these days, pretty much every major business and service

00:06:31   has iOS apps, almost every major developer either ignores the Mac completely as a platform

00:06:39   for their application or service or they treat it as a second class citizen because it has

00:06:45   smaller numbers of people and it's way harder and more expensive for most people to develop

00:06:50   for.

00:06:52   So this is a problem, so even if you ignore the technical arguments, even if fans of app

00:06:58   kit can tell us why it's better in certain ways, which it is, or why it's more advanced

00:07:03   in a lot of ways, which it is, or why things are done this way for good reasons, which

00:07:06   they are, all of that is secondary to this massive economics problem of there's tons

00:07:14   of people writing iOS code and who can write iOS code.

00:07:18   It's like this massive universal language now for mobile apps because of the market

00:07:22   realities of these platforms.

00:07:24   So every business is writing iOS apps.

00:07:27   But the Mac is like, if we get to it maybe someday or if you write a Mac app it's maybe

00:07:36   an Electron app or some other kind of wrapper or cross platform language where you're

00:07:41   really just writing like JavaScript or web code or something like that and it's being

00:07:45   run in web kit on a Mac, which is fine, like big apps like Slack are done that way.

00:07:52   It's fine, but it's not good and there's lots of major downsides to that kind of app,

00:07:57   especially like memory usage and performance and stuff like that, native integration type

00:08:01   stuff.

00:08:02   So that's not a great situation to be in and also just a lot of apps just don't have

00:08:06   native apps in the Mac, they just use websites.

00:08:08   It's like, alright, well you can log into our website and do this.

00:08:11   And I am a huge example of this in my own head obviously.

00:08:16   This is exactly how Overcast works.

00:08:18   I don't have a Mac app.

00:08:19   I have considered making a Mac app before.

00:08:21   There are a couple of podcast apps that have made Mac apps and usually they have killed

00:08:27   them.

00:08:28   Usually the other indie podcast apps that made Mac versions seem to stop development

00:08:34   afterwards.

00:08:35   It seemed like that was too much of a burden and it just was the last nail in the coffin

00:08:40   or something.

00:08:41   I'm afraid of that happening to me if I would do the same thing because it's a totally

00:08:44   different platform.

00:08:45   If I were to try to port Overcast to Mac today, I could very easily just copy over and use

00:08:55   the core library functions of things like the database, the sync engine, and most or

00:09:00   all of the audio engine because all those low-level frameworks have been unified for

00:09:05   the most part with not a lot of exceptions, at least in the way I'm using them.

00:09:08   But the UI would have to be completely rewritten from scratch.

00:09:16   You could make an argument, and many people have, that you should write custom UIs from

00:09:22   scratch for a completely different new platform than what you've written before.

00:09:28   In an ideal world, that's true.

00:09:29   In an ideal world, yes, I would write a whole custom Mac UI because the Mac is not iOS.

00:09:38   The controls are totally different, the environment's totally different, windowing is totally different.

00:09:43   There's all sorts of major platform differences between the two that you shouldn't just

00:09:47   be running an iOS app in a window on the Mac.

00:09:50   That's not a great way to do this.

00:09:52   But the reality is because developing on the Mac is such a huge investment for an established

00:10:00   iOS developer and because there are way more of us than Mac developers, and that's probably

00:10:07   going to continue to go that direction.

00:10:10   Because of these economic differences, the reality is not that we are choosing between

00:10:16   having good Mac apps and having some kind of cross-platform thing.

00:10:21   The reality is that we're choosing between having the cross-platform thing or no Mac

00:10:26   apps.

00:10:27   And this is not to say that the entire Mac app market will go away that exists today.

00:10:30   We don't know what this is.

00:10:31   This could be just another option.

00:10:33   This could be another framework, a platform that you can use to develop Mac apps with

00:10:38   as an alternative to AppKit.

00:10:40   That's how I would guess they would do it because Apple has a whole bunch of AppKit

00:10:44   code themselves.

00:10:45   They're not going to get rid of AppKit.

00:10:47   So I think the existing Mac market is fine.

00:10:50   And they would be totally fine to keep going in that way.

00:10:54   I don't think this is a threat to them in the short term.

00:10:57   In the long term it probably is, but I think in the long term it's very clear that Apple

00:11:01   has not been moving AppKit forward very aggressively.

00:11:05   They have not been investing heavily into it just like the rest of the Mac, basically.

00:11:09   >> And I think the biggest threat, honestly, probably to Mac developers is just the devaluing

00:11:15   in some ways of their unique skill.

00:11:17   It reminds me of people who are, say, Fortran developers or Cobalt developers.

00:11:21   If you have this very distinctive skill that if you are an AppKit genius, that is a unique,

00:11:29   marketable, valuable thing right now, that if a company decides they want a Mac app,

00:11:34   there's not as many people who can do an exceptional job of that.

00:11:39   And in a weird way that might be slightly devalued by this, just in the sense that if

00:11:43   it's now, it's something that is possible for a broader range of people to do.

00:11:49   But the thing is, it's a weird thing when you start to get into, "Well, these apps won't

00:11:54   be as good, potentially," which is, I think, a common reaction to this kind of thing.

00:11:58   It's like, "Well, people are just going to make blown-up iPhone apps."

00:12:01   And maybe that's true.

00:12:04   In many ways, it makes me think of the iPad, though, where I think for years, the iPad

00:12:09   and the way that it was technically structured was that while it was still UIKit in terms

00:12:15   of the libraries you were using, the way that you were encouraged to develop an iPad app

00:12:22   was that it was a completely separate visual fork in your application that you would launch

00:12:30   into your iPad app or you would launch into your iPhone app.

00:12:33   And then with the size-classing changes and the introduction of the slide-over and the

00:12:40   one-quarter-width iPad apps and all these things, that largely went away.

00:12:45   I think the encouragement started to become that it's like being an adaptable iPhone app

00:12:52   that is good enough and is probably sufficient for most situations and may not be optimized.

00:12:57   That when you are running that app on the biggest, whatever, the 12-inch iPad Pro, it's

00:13:04   not going to be ideal, potentially.

00:13:06   But it works, and it will be there.

00:13:08   And it's certainly better than just having the 2X iPhone app blow-up version, which was

00:13:16   the situation we found ourselves in before.

00:13:18   And I expect we would have a similar thing moving to the Mac, where if your app has an

00:13:26   iPad app, imagine running that iPad app on a Mac, and you're probably pretty close to

00:13:32   something that is very usable, workable, like would feel -- it may not feel native in the

00:13:39   sense of what we consider native now, but the reality is probably for an increasing

00:13:44   number of people, what feels native and natural is iOS, and the Mac is the foreign thing,

00:13:51   and it could even be reassuring and encouraging to somebody who comes to -- if they come to

00:13:57   the Mac and the Mac feels like iOS, like the thing they know, that may actually be a positive

00:14:03   rather than a negative for them.

00:14:05   And so I think dismissing this in any way for like, "Oh, it's going to lead to these

00:14:11   kind of shovelware iPhone apps that are just going to be blown up onto the screen or running

00:14:18   in teeny little windows," it's like, maybe.

00:14:21   But having something, like if suddenly there now being a million new apps available for

00:14:27   the Mac, that would be awesome.

00:14:30   That would be -- I think there's no world in which that's a bad thing, I don't think.

00:14:34   Like having that opportunity, I like that, as something -- maybe they won't work wonderfully,

00:14:41   maybe it's not perfect, but it's not like the Mac is this flourishing ecosystem that

00:14:46   is continuing to grow and develop and attract new developers in droves.

00:14:52   It's like, no, it's not.

00:14:54   And I think this is a -- it's easy to perhaps get stuck on the ideal sense of what you could

00:15:01   imagine versus the pragmatic reality of if Apple went down this road, if they made it

00:15:06   really easy for iOS developers to essentially just add, like, "This app can run on the Mac,

00:15:12   and when it's in the Mac, it has maybe a slightly different size class, but otherwise is pretty

00:15:17   much just the same," that's pretty cool to me.

00:15:21   I'm on board with that, I think that would be really interesting, and overall, it just

00:15:26   creates so much more opportunity and it creates such a value, an increased value in learning

00:15:30   how to make iOS apps or UIKit or whatever this new thing is, it's like all that skill

00:15:37   and development that we've developed now suddenly becomes that much more valuable and interesting.

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00:16:57   So you mentioned a minute ago the idea of being ideal versus pragmatic, and I think

00:17:03   this is the overall theme of this kind of concept, like assuming this is real or if

00:17:10   this happens.

00:17:12   Real versus pragmatic is an argument that a lot of people have trouble with because

00:17:18   a lot, like it seems unfair or unjust or non-ideal to, especially for people who really care

00:17:26   a lot, which is pretty common in the Mac fan community because that's the kind of people

00:17:31   who historically have loved Apple products because Apple really cared a lot.

00:17:34   But it's very common like mental friction to get over that like sometimes the best solution

00:17:40   is actually the most pragmatic one, which might not be the objectively best quality

00:17:49   one, or the one that you want, or the one that you think should be.

00:17:52   I wrote an article forever ago on my blog called "Right vs. Pragmatic" that was actually

00:17:56   about bathroom trash can placement, but it's a similar argument, which is like you can

00:18:02   make a good argument that what should happen is everyone who wants to make a Mac app should

00:18:08   do it like the most native original old school way, which is AppKit.

00:18:12   Sorry, classic Mac people.

00:18:14   I know this is not old school to you, but appKit is old school these days.

00:18:20   You can make a great argument that all Mac apps should be AppKit and should be fully

00:18:24   native and should be designed from scratch with the Mac in mind.

00:18:28   You're right, that should be the case, but the reality is different.

00:18:32   The reality is that the Mac is a neglected platform by a lot of people these days, including

00:18:38   on many levels Apple.

00:18:41   Apple is not able to keep up with their own apps doing very well on the Mac anymore.

00:18:47   Apple versions of their cross platform apps, the Mac versions like Photos, usually have

00:18:53   fewer features or like notes.

00:18:56   They usually have fewer features or they have more bugs or they don't even really take

00:19:00   advantage fully of the Mac itself or they're just kind of weird designs that never get

00:19:05   touched like reminders.

00:19:08   Even Apple can't keep up with their own apps, their own first party apps on this platform.

00:19:14   Even they are having trouble maintaining these two different platforms and justifying the

00:19:17   effort it takes to move the Mac forward meaningfully.

00:19:24   The ideal choice is everyone should invest infinitely into the Mac until everything can

00:19:27   be great, but that isn't one of our choices in reality.

00:19:31   In reality our choices are, well here's how people actually work, here's the actual economics,

00:19:35   actual trade offs that are involved here.

00:19:39   Our actual choice is between moving in a direction like this rumor which is a more unified UI

00:19:45   framework, more unified app platform between Mac and iOS or having the Mac continue to

00:19:51   languish, having a lot more apps switch to the webkit electron kind of style where everything

00:19:57   is non-native anyway and badly performing and a huge RAM hog which makes your Mac suck

00:20:03   more.

00:20:04   That's the alternative here.

00:20:05   The alternative is not that we're going to educate the world into using AppKit.

00:20:11   That ship has sailed.

00:20:12   That's not going to happen.

00:20:15   If these are our options, which news flash they are, I'd rather have the option that

00:20:20   gives us more Mac apps than the option that gives us fewer, crappier ones.

00:20:26   I think too it's also this creates so many interesting possibilities.

00:20:30   Some of them are kind of tangential, but for me I'm kind of excited about the prospect

00:20:38   of being able to ship iOS apps without needing a sandbox or app review potentially.

00:20:46   That's interesting.

00:20:48   Certainly all of the apps for the most part that I've ever shipped have to go through

00:20:55   app review, are from the app store, and that constrains and limits the types of things

00:21:01   that I can do, the types of risks I want to take.

00:21:05   I have been bit by app review enough times that there's a certain cautiousness and carefulness

00:21:11   that I have to adopt when I'm working on my apps.

00:21:14   It's kind of interesting for me to be able to use the skills I have at this point potentially

00:21:19   to ship apps.

00:21:21   I would hope anyway that if Apple did something like this, that it wouldn't be only available.

00:21:27   You'd only be somehow able to run these apps if they came from the Mac app store.

00:21:31   Hopefully you would be able to just run them independently as Mac apps with the developer

00:21:36   ID, code signing, that level of security that I could just sign it myself, put it out on

00:21:42   my website, and distribute it.

00:21:45   That's a really interesting opportunity and possibility and allows for new things.

00:21:50   That's really cool to me.

00:21:51   Those types of things are not the strict goal of this, but it creates these new opportunities.

00:21:58   I love situations that it takes something that is existing and creates new opportunities

00:22:04   for it.

00:22:05   I don't exactly know.

00:22:06   If tomorrow Apple announced this platform and it's like, "We've added this great new

00:22:10   thing," you can with relatively little effort make your existing iOS apps run nicely and

00:22:18   natively on the Mac.

00:22:20   I don't know exactly what I would do, but I would give some serious thought to what

00:22:24   I could do with that because there is a lot of interesting things that I think become

00:22:28   possible in that world and things that I could imagine wanting to try and experiment with

00:22:33   in a bit more of a creative way.

00:22:36   It's nice to not have over the back of my mind, "Well, this has to go through App Review.

00:22:40   This has to be conformant with all of the App Review stuff.

00:22:44   If I now have this alternative place that I can go and experiment, that's really cool

00:22:50   too."

00:22:51   A lot of the initial reaction has also focused on user pricing expectations and things like

00:22:58   devaluing Mac apps to iOS app levels.

00:23:01   This is certainly a reasonable concern for people to have.

00:23:06   I think a combination of two conflicting viewpoints either, A, it won't do that, but B, that

00:23:12   ship has already sailed and that already has happened.

00:23:16   The Mac justifies higher prices today for a lot of apps not because they were difficult

00:23:23   to write, but because ... I assume App Kit developers wouldn't classify it as difficult,

00:23:30   but you know what I mean.

00:23:31   Not because they were written in App Kit.

00:23:32   That's not why they were expensive compared to iOS apps.

00:23:35   And I think if you look at the actual pricing history of a lot of Mac apps, there's already

00:23:40   been downward pressure on pricing by quite a lot and for quite a long time, ever since

00:23:45   the iOS app store shipped at all.

00:23:50   I think that ship has already sailed to a large degree.

00:23:55   If there was already pressure on your app to get its price down, that pressure will

00:24:00   still be there.

00:24:02   If there wasn't already pressure on your app to get its price down, well, first of all,

00:24:05   you probably aren't charging enough.

00:24:07   But second of all, the reason why Mac apps have been able to charge good money is often

00:24:13   because they actually deliver meaningful value to people in a way that they are willing to

00:24:19   pay for.

00:24:20   And so that's things like apps people use to get their work done, very specialized apps

00:24:26   that there really aren't good alternatives for, apps that save people significant amounts

00:24:30   of time in their day.

00:24:34   The reason why app prices have been pushed down is not because Apple won't give us trials

00:24:39   or upgrades or whatever it is in the app store, like whatever we're complaining about that

00:24:42   year.

00:24:43   That's not the reason why prices have been pushed down.

00:24:46   The reason is because on iOS, there's tons of developers, so there's tons of competition,

00:24:51   and most developers expect to be able to make money from just good work, regardless of how

00:24:57   much value it delivers to the customer.

00:25:00   On the Mac, the apps that make money are not just any Mac apps, they're apps that I'm willing

00:25:06   to pay like 50 bucks for an app that helps me produce podcasts every week, because that's

00:25:09   my job.

00:25:10   I'm willing to pay good money for tools.

00:25:14   I think my Git app was like 80 bucks.

00:25:16   I consider that a great value.

00:25:18   Paint Code, my icon drawing app, I think was 100.

00:25:20   That was also a great value.

00:25:23   The apps that I use to get my job done or that save me significant time are valuable

00:25:29   and are worth paying for.

00:25:32   If this iOS to Mac crossover app thing happens, that will still be the case.

00:25:38   The only risk to pricing on the large scale, I think, is that this will bring a lot more

00:25:46   developers to the platform, and so there will just be more competition.

00:25:51   But I think history of the world has proven that that's generally a good thing, even if

00:25:57   it might not be good for certain people who are there now who have had the platform more

00:26:02   to themselves and have locked up the whole market just by the difficulty or obscurity

00:26:08   of the platform as part of a contributing factor.

00:26:11   If you now have more competition, more people can develop Mac apps, yeah, that might not

00:26:15   be good for the handful of people who are there already, but it's really good for the

00:26:18   users and for pretty much everyone else and all those new developers who can now make

00:26:22   careers here where they weren't before.

00:26:26   Those are the concerns, but I think those are either unwarranted or missing the big

00:26:32   picture.

00:26:33   Yeah, and I think too, if your business, if its sustainability is fragile to the degree

00:26:41   that the introduction of additional competitors makes it fall apart, you are in a bad position

00:26:49   to start with.

00:26:50   And I really have genuine sympathy for people who find themselves in that situation.

00:26:55   I've been in that situation.

00:26:57   Early days of being an iOS developer, whatever, eight years ago, it was really like I could

00:27:04   make good money from being in the app store just because there weren't that many other

00:27:07   apps in the app store.

00:27:09   So being one of them was great.

00:27:11   But eventually, that gravy train came to an end and I had to adapt and I had to move on.

00:27:17   And that process has been difficult and that process has not always been comfortable, but

00:27:22   that is the reality and it's the understanding that the position I found myself in back then

00:27:29   was not because of something that I was entitled to or had uniquely achieved.

00:27:38   It was more a circumstance of timing, of luck, of being in the right place at the right time.

00:27:44   And eventually, that time changed.

00:27:46   And I think it will be the same thing here.

00:27:47   It's just going to be this question of finding a way to bridge the gap.

00:27:53   And it's like, well, if you're an existing Mac app and you have this great head start

00:27:58   because you can presumably make apps that still stand out and that are still better

00:28:03   than an app that is not coming from somebody with that length of experience.

00:28:10   Even if you are still developing an iOS or whatever the equivalent framework that this

00:28:17   is going to be, I would imagine and expect that if you are a lifelong Mac developer and

00:28:22   you start developing a new Mac app with these tools, it should be better.

00:28:27   It should be more informed, stand out in a way that would give it an advantage.

00:28:33   But the reality is, you could imagine the world, people are just going to expect to

00:28:39   get the Mac app for free when they get the iPhone app.

00:28:42   And it's like, yeah, probably.

00:28:44   They already expect that.

00:28:45   They already do.

00:28:46   And this is just the next form of that.

00:28:49   And this is the next place this is going to happen.

00:28:51   And that's not great.

00:28:52   That's uncomfortable.

00:28:53   But I think it's also, in some ways, it's necessary for the platform to move forward.

00:28:58   And so it's really sad and tricky and complicated.

00:29:01   And I have great sympathy for people who find themselves in that situation.

00:29:05   But that's where this tide is rising to.

00:29:09   And we're just going to have to get in our boats and hope for the best.

00:29:12   Thanks for listening, everybody.

00:29:13   And we'll talk to you next week.

00:29:16   [BLANK_AUDIO]