Half-assed Mac Apps

Uncategorized Mar 04, 2022

This week, Riccardo Mori published a piece about the recent perceived decline in Mac software titled “A brief reflection on Mac software stagnation”.

(That he linked to TextBuddy at the start of the article is a happy coincidence. I’m an avid reader of his blog no matter the topic.)

I was going to reply with a quick tweet-sized comment. But those 280 characters turned into a few tweets, then a full-on Twitter thread, and then – ah, shit – I really should write about this properly.

So here we are this evening. I want to present my short thesis answering Riccardo’s question of why so many Mac Catalyst apps are, at best, Half-assed Mac Apps.

Let’s begin.

Riccardo asks the question:

What is the newest application you have installed that turned out to be so useful and well-made it’s now part of your essential tools? An app that really got you excited and happy to be a Mac user? For the sake of argument, let’s leave out games (obviously) and single-purpose little utilities.

He surveys his own list of recent app purchases – and there’s nothing there.

[If] I open my toolbox with all the essential Mac apps I use on a daily basis for everything I do, what I see are old (some very old), tried-and-trusted applications…

This may be a completely subjective observation, but I’ve been feeling a certain stagnation in Mac software these past few years….the Mac as a platform appears trapped in inertia instead of progressing

There are factors that should be considered when observing the current state of Mac software, factors we could use to paint a picture that is necessarily imperfect and speculative

The most significant factor he writes about is Catalyst. He sums up Apple’s pitch to developers as

let’s remove the friction of having to deal with platform-specific frameworks, and let’s just have a system where you can effectively build universal apps that can run on iPhone, iPad, and the Mac with little effort.

There it is. Did you catch it? The first four words: let’s remove the friction.

Making cross-platform apps easy by removing the engineering friction is what I consider the root cause of so many iPad turned sub-par Mac apps. As Riccardo describes them

they appear and behave in a way that doesn’t feel very Mac-like, with UI elements that clearly are just cut & pasted from iOS and poorly adapted to offer a good, usable, consistent experience under Mac OS.

That’s too diplomatic. I prefer to call them Half-assed Mac apps.

“Half-assed Mac Apps” is a pun on Collin Donnell‘s delightful way of describing macOS software (made popular by Brent Simmons and then Gruber) that fully embraces the platform’s strengths, conventions, history, and user base. He calls them “Mac-assed Mac Apps.”

Half-assed Mac Apps are what you get when iPad apps are lazily ported to the Mac using the magic one-click Catalyst checkbox in Xcode. Yes, they run on macOS “natively,” but most are – how do I put it? Meh.

That’s not a slight at those app developers. Or even at Apple and the team responsible for Catalyst. The glut of mediocre Mac software that are clearly repurposed iPad apps under the hood is just a by-product of Catalyst itself not being good enough or bad enough.

Here’s what I mean.

If all of the friction is removed and it was possible to build an iPad app that Catalyst can render on macOS with minimal code changes, full UX fidelity, and no compromises to standard desktop platform conventions – that would indeed be indistinguishable from magic and a god-send to the Mac’s dire need of developer attention.

On the other hand, if porting an iPad app to the Mac with Catalyst was doable – but challenging. If it had a little too much friction. If it required serious effort and knowledge of the technical underpinnings of macOS. Then by that measure, any iPad apps that did get ported to Mac could only be done so by developers who understand macOS and the details that make it insanely great – either through experience or through effort.

Instead, Catalyst, today, is somewhere in the middle. Not bad. Not great. It mainly “just works” with minimal effort in a way that is accessible to the larger pool of iOS developers. Apple succeeded with the goal Riccardo laid out. And we end up with apps that typically fall somewhere in between serviceable and usable – an uncanny valley of mish-mashed blah.

Is it possible to build an insanely great Mac-assed Mac app with Catalyst? Yes, I absolutely believe it is. Are any developers putting in the extra effort to make that happen? If the products lining the shelves of the Mac App Store are any indication, it’s extraordinarily few of them.

Update: March 6, 2022

See this post for some half-assed followup.