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  • Universal Apps: Is the Mac in Danger?

    February 14th, 2018

    Even though the Mac-oriented blogs are still dealing with the implications of the less-favorable review of the HomePod from Consumer Reports, I thought I’d take a breather. But CR has clearly learned that putting Apple in the headlines generates lots of coverage, especially if it’s negative.

    Now then: There have been published reports that, beginning with macOS 10.14 and iOS 12, you’ll be able to run an iPhone or iPad app on a Mac. And vice versa, although I can see some complexities that are being overlooked in the simplistic coverage about so-called Universal apps.

    But remember that none of this has been confirmed by Apple.

    Now this wouldn’t be the first time that Apple made it possible to develop apps running on two different processors. Besides, the Unix core of iOS and macOS were designed to be portable, capable of running on multiple processors. There was even an Intel version of NeXTSTEP, precursor to the original Mac OS X. So when Apple switched from PowerPC to Intel CPUs beginning in 2006, it wasn’t such a big deal. There was already a version of the OS running on Intel in the test labs just in case such a change became necessary.

    In the early days, it was possible to build apps that would run on Intel and PowerPC, which surely eased the transition. And iOS is basically a slimmed down version of macOS designed to run efficiently on mobile gear.

    So it makes perfect sense that Apple would allow developers to build a new variation of Universal apps to cover it’s current line of computing devices.

    One article I read, however, suggests this might be a way to begin a wide scale transition from Mac to iPhone and iPad. Remember when Steve Jobs referred to Macs as trucks? So are they planning on building crossovers?

    It’s certainly true that there has been some level of cross-pollination across iOS and macOS. Some of this is very much done to provide a more consistent user experience among all of Apple’s computers. This practice resulted, for a time, in complaints about the iOSification of the Mac, that more and more elements of the mobile platform would replace or supplant the traditional macOS interface.

    For the most part, however, the changes were minor. Also don’t forget that iOS 11 brought some Mac multitasking elements, such as a Dock, to the iPad. A Files app, a sort of simplified Finder, allows direct access to some of your files on iPhones and iPads.

    But don’t assume a merger is imminent or in the cards. It may very well be that Apple wanted to improve the ability to use productivity apps on the iPad, and taking some cues from the Mac was simply the logical thing to do. There may be more of that in future iOS updates, but that, again, doesn’t mean the Mac is due to be supplanted. It may simply be a matter of providing the best tools for the tasks at hand.

    So what sort of iOS apps would you expect to run best on a Mac? Probably those designed for the iPad, which is closer to a personal computer than an iPhone. The possibilities would be far more limited the other way around, because those sprawling Mac apps, such as Adobe Photoshop and QuarkXPress, aren’t optimized to work with touchscreens, and their resource requirements are immense. As it stands, Adobe already has iOS apps, but they offer limited functionality and, again, they are optimized for touch rather than a mouse or a trackpad.

    Such significant interface differences would require adjustments and devising easy conversion schemes to make it possible for apps to run on both platforms without serious modification. Remember, too, that iPhones and iPads are designed as limited resource gadgets, with less RAM and less storage space than a Mac.

    That situation is improving, however. Apple is already offering up to 256GB storage on iOS gear. The iPhone X, however, maxes out at 3GB RAM. How long will it be before it hits 8GB to higher, something more capable of handling a resource heavy Mac app? Or will the new Universal app development scheme help programmers to slim down their software and remove bloat?

    Another possibility is that Apple is considering yet another Mac CPU change. There are already ARM coprocessors with limited functionality on the MacBook Pro and the iMac Pro. Don’t be surprised to see this approach on the promised Mac Pro and other Macs beginning this year.

    Does that mean Apple might go all the way, ditch Intel, and go all in for its own CPU designs? With fewer resource limitations, it may be possible to scale up the A-series processor to run much faster on a Mac. So it would certainly be possible for Apple to make the switch.

    As with its previous processor switches, there would be a way to run Intel apps on ARM, and the conversion process would be simplified. Perhaps the ability to build Universal apps will ease such a switchover.

    But what about the ability to run Windows at full tilt on a Mac with Boot Camp, and with decent performance with a virtual machine? Could Apple provide an efficient level of Intel emulation on ARM, so you won’t lose much performance from the switchover?

    I do not pretend to know the actual reasons for these developments. As I said, there is no confirmation that Universal apps are really coming. No doubt Apple has tested such possibilities, however, even a potential ARM switchover. But that doesn’t mean any of it is going to happen anytime soon.

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