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Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers the keynote address. (Photo by Brooks Kraft/Apple Inc.)

By Jason Snell

Thoughts on WWDC 2020 Day One

Most people attend WWDC remotely every year, watching video sessions in the comfort of their homes and offices. But I’ve been going to WWDC since the late 90s, so today was… strange. And the carefully orchestrated keynote video was of an even higher density than Apple’s presentations usually are. I’m still getting my bearings, and it’s important to pace one’s self for the week to come, but here are a few of my quick observations about the opening day of Apple’s first-ever virtual WWDC.

Bye Intel, hello Apple silicon

Johny Srouji
Apple senior vice president of Hardware Technologies Johny Srouji. (Photo by Brooks Kraft/Apple Inc.)

Well, here we go. The Mac begins the third processor transition of its life with a move from Intel processors to Apple-designed ARM processors that Apple’s referring to, generically, as “Apple silicon.” (My guess is that this is a necessary placeholder until Apple unveils the specific name for this series of processors when the first ARM Macs ship later this year.)

This transition is likely to be the smoothest of the three. Mac development almost entirely occurs with Apple’s development tools and compilers, so the path will be fairly straightforward for developers. That means that many apps will run natively on Apple’s chips from the start. For those that won’t, there’s Rosetta 2, a code-translation system that builds a version of your apps translated in advance for the new chips and using native system features whenever possible—so even your old, not-yet-native apps will run, and probably run at decent speeds. Apple has also indicated that these new Macs will follow the same general software policies as current Macs do, so they won’t be restricted to only Mac App Store apps or anything like that.

People who rely on running Windows apps on their Macs, however, will not find a comforting story. Apple made a point of highlighting virtualization features that are built into macOS Big Sur running on Apple Silicon, but these seem to be for virtualizing operating systems built for Apple’s processors, not for emulating an operating system built for a different processor. I would imagine that, eventually, there will be a way to run Windows on ARM Macs—but it may take a while and it may be a slow, frustrating experience when it does arrive.

Now let’s talk about the upside. In a lengthy presentation, Apple’s chip czar Johny Srouji offered a few tantalizing suggestions about why Apple was making this move. Of course, Srouji doesn’t want to steal the thunder of future Mac product announcements, but he does want to impress upon all of us that there are good reasons. I appreciated his line about how the 2018 iPad Pro’s status as a device that was more powerful than most PC laptops “foreshadows how well this architecture scales to the Mac.”

Srouji also made it clear that Apple is designing a series of processors that are purpose built for the Mac, just as it has built custom processors for the iPhone, the iPad, and the Apple Watch. While many developers will test their apps this summer on a Mac mini running the same A12Z Bionic processor that’s in the 2020 iPad Pro, Apple’s shipping ARM Macs will contain processors that are not left over from an iPad, but made specifically for them.

Of course, Apple has been headed in this direction for a while now. “Performance is enough of a reason to change, but it’s just part of the story,” Srouji said. That’s simultaneously a boast about the fact that Apple expects its processors to be superior to Intel’s across the board, and a declaration about the fact that Apple wants to do more than Intel processors can provide.

Most modern Macs already contain within them an Apple-designed T2 processor that is handling security, video encoding, control of onboard cameras, running the Touch Bar, and acting as a disk controller, among other functions. All of it is built around the edges of the Intel processor at the center—but soon, Apple will be able to build the whole package at once.

All of that is to say that while the transition to be smooth, the reason for the transition will probably be readily apparent. These new Macs with Apple-built processors will almost certainly offer speed and power efficiency far beyond what the Intel equivalent models currently offer. Apple has judged that the leap is worth the inconvenience.

Rethinking the home screen

iPhone home screen

The grid of app icons on the iPhone home screen has served Apple well, but it was past time to provide users with more functionality. So with iOS 14, Apple has created a new version of its widget architecture and allowed users to place widgets generated by various apps on the home screen, nestling among the app icons or even living on home screen pages all by themselves.

The design of these widgets looks great, though Apple has pulled support for interactivity, killing some more daring widgets like James Thomson’s PCalc calculator. It wasn’t entirely clear from the keynote, but if space is at a premium you can actually stack like-sized widgets together, so multiple widgets can share space. You swipe to move among them. (This is in addition to the Smart Stack features, which uses Siri to guess about which widget you need depending on context.) Fans of high-density, information-packed screens will take advantage of widget stacks.

Then there’s the App Library, which—when combined with the ability to hide as many pages of your home screen as you like—solves the issue of providing access to all of your apps while not forcing you to wade through all of them on many pages of home screen. It’s a carefully balanced feature that rolls in a bunch of existing iOS technology—Siri app recommendations and App Store categorizations to name two—to offer a little bit more than just a bare search field or alphabetical list. (And if you regret making one of your home-screen pages disappear, don’t worry—hiding them is nondestructive, and you can always bring them back.)

This is all good stuff. I look forward to redesigning my iPhone’s home screen to display fewer apps and more widgets. There’s just one thing missing: the iPad. In iPadOS, there’s no App Library, and while the new widgets are supported, they’re limited to a single column on the first page of the home screen.

The iPad’s home screen app icon grid is no less monotonous than the iPhone’s, so it could certainly use App Library. And the vast expanse of iPad screen real estate could happily gobble up a whole bunch of widgets, full of useful data. Instead, there’s just a single column on a single page. It’s a curious and unfortunate omission.

The Mac and iPad influence each other

Craig Federighi
Apple senior vice president of Software Engineering Craig Federighi.

Are the Mac and the iPad merging together? I don’t think so, but they’re definitely exerting gravitational pulls on one another. It’s hard not to look at the new macOS design and not see how it’s picking up a huge chunk of design language from the iPad, from the rounded rectangles in icons and windows to the use of SF Symbols glyphs to the mouseover effect on buttons. (That new Mac window design, with the title bar demoted into the toolbar, is going to take some getting used to.)

But the iPad, too, picked up a bunch of Mac interface elements, including a new search interface that’s basically the Mac version of Spotlight, the addition of drop-down menus, and app sidebars everywhere. I had to chuckle when Apple showed off the new sidebar in Photos on the iPad—that’s a feature that’s been in Photos (and before that, iPhoto) on the Mac forever. But on the iPad, it’s new—and those sidebars are showing up everywhere in iPadOS 14.

The iPad and the Mac are different, but they’re also joined. Mac Catalyst may have started the flow, but this goes beyond that. Apple’s using the iPad to make the Mac feel more modern, and using the Mac to make the iPad feel more functional. We’ll see how this relationship evolves.

The Mac at the end of the universe

Andreas Wendker
Behind Apple’s Andreas Wendker is a Mac running unmodified iOS apps. (Photo by Brooks Kraft/Apple Inc.)

At last year’s keynote, Apple focused its attention on SwiftUI and barely mentioned Mac Catalyst. This year, though, Catalyst got its own slide and a whole bunch of improvements, which is only fitting since two stock Mac apps—Messages and Maps—have been re-implemented entirely using Mac Catalyst. This is good news for developers who have been waiting to see if Catalyst was going to continue to be developed and improved.

But then Apple dropped a bit of a bomb: For Macs running on Apple’s own processors, iOS app developers will be able to place their apps in the Mac App Store, unaltered. These Macs will just… run iOS apps.

On one level, this is great news, because there are iOS developers who will never be bothered to build Mac apps—and now can make their apps available on the Mac, albeit in weird app wrappers that don’t feel like real Mac apps.

But on another level, it calls into question the very existence of Mac Catalyst. While some developers will put in the extra work to make the iPad apps into proper Mac apps, some will decide that it’s not worth the trouble since their iPad apps will run just fine on macOS.

So far as I can tell, Apple has decided that it’s not going to strongarm developers into doing the work to support the Mac. Maybe it’s confident in the powers of Mac Catalyst. Or maybe it realizes that some developers are just not going to care about the Mac, and it’s better to lower the standards of what a proper Mac app should be in order to get those apps on the platform.

The idealist in me says this is a terrible idea and that it will just lead to developers abandoning the Mac and just shoveling their iOS app onto the platform. If you think Mac Catalyst apps are weird, wait until you’re running pure iOS apps that have made no attempt to appear even remotely Mac-like.

The optimist in me says that there will always be good Mac apps, but there are also a lot of great iOS apps and being able to run them makes my Mac more useful and relevant.

The truth is probably that the future of the Mac is as a “pro” version of iOS and iPadOS. It’ll run more or less every app that’s available on the iPhone and iPad, but it’ll also run traditional Mac software. Over time, the distinction between iPad apps and Mac apps will begin to fade away entirely, and the Mac will just become a keyboard-and-trackpad mode of the iPad.

Like reading about our sun becoming a red giant and swallowing the Earth, or pondering the heat death of the universe, it sounds like a depressing story until you realize the time scales involved. If Apple handles it right, the Mac will fade away so slowly that by the time it’s gone, it won’t matter anymore. But it’s hard not to look at the appearance of unmodified iOS software on the platform and not see the endgame.

Wow, that got dark. This is going to be a really interesting week. I’m looking forward to what Tuesday brings.

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