What will the Mac be like in 2020?

It was as absolute an answer as you could possibly get. Is
Apple merging iOS and macOS? “No,” said Apple software chief
Craig Federighi, with an animated accompaniment smashing down
on the screen behind him.

And yet… Federighi made that comment just moments before he
unveiled a new system, being worked on by Apple over multiple
years, that will allow the developers of iOS apps to bring
those apps to the Mac more easily. And first up will be Apple
itself, which is using this approach to translate the iOS
Stocks, Voice Memos, News, and Home apps for
macOS Mojave
, coming this fall.

While the Mac and iOS might not be merging, major changes are
in store for the Mac and the apps it runs. It’s hard to imagine
how the Mac of a couple of years hence isn’t populated with
apps sourced from iOS. And yet, Apple says, the Mac will remain
the Mac.

What does that mean? What will define the Mac in 2020?

What makes a Mac?

Let’s start by considering exactly what Federighi said on stage
at WWDC: “We love the Mac, and we love macOS because it’s
explicitly created to the unique egonomics of Mac hardware,
like the ergonomics of the keyboard and trackpad, the
flexibility in displays and storage, and because of the power
it exposes, it makes the Mac able to accomplish almost
anything.”

In an interview at Wired, he also said: “It’s
still macOS, you still have the Terminal, you can still attach
four monitors to it, you can still hook up external drives.”

So for Apple, the Mac is defined by physical attributes,
hardware flexibility, and exposed computing power. Some of
these definitions are clearer than others: It’s unlikely that
iOS devices are ever going to offer modular displays and
storage devices. I’m not sure I can entirely conceive of iOS
never having a tool like the Terminal—if only because it feels
inevitable that app development will one day be possible on
iOS—but I can accept that the wild-west feel of macOS, where
you can arbitrarily install, compile, and write software, is
unlikely to ever be reflected on iOS.

ipad with macbook Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

It feels like Federighi’s cutting it awfully close on the
“unique ergonomics” front, though. Apple itself sells a
keyboard for the iPad Pro, and even allows users to move their
fingers like they’re using a trackpad when editing text. The
iPhone and iMac Pro are about as far as two devices can get
from one another, but the MacBook and the iPad Pro are not.

In his interview with Wired, Federighi also pooh-poohed the
idea that Apple might make a MacBook with a touchscreen. And
yet one of Apple’s greatest arguments against touch on
macOS—that Mac software was designed with keyboard and pointing
device in mind—is going to very rapidly become obsolete as
iOS-sourced apps appear on the Mac in 2019 and 2020.

It’s a tough position for Apple to be in, because of course the
company is never going to comment on future products, but it’s
still an open question about whether the border between the
iPad Pro and the MacBook is immutable or shifting. Until Apple
releases an iOS laptop or a MacBook with a touchscreen—or
both!—we won’t know if Apple has decided to re-draw the lines.

It’s hard to imagine that Apple would avoid legitimate
opportunities to grow the iOS platform just out of fear of
treading on the Mac’s sacred ground, though.

Introducing iOS Pro

In a world where
relevant iOS apps can be brought to the Mac
with ease, what
will make the Mac different from iOS will be the flexibility
and power that Federighi talked about. One interesting change
in this regard seems to be happening on the Mac App Store,
where Apple seems to be loosening some of the restrictions that
previously forced apps out or barred apps from even considering
entry.

macos mojave app store Apple

MacOS Mojave will feature a new Mac App Store.

In macOS Mojave, Apple has added some new security procedures
that allow apps to ask for permission to access information
that was previously barred from apps that were sold in the Mac
App Store. And perhaps not coincidentally, Monday’s WWDC
keynote featured several apps that either never appeared in the
Mac App Store or departed the store in frustration over Apple’s
policies. This is an encouraging sign that Apple recognizes
that beyond the potential avalanche of iOS-sourced Mac apps,
the Mac App Store needs to be populated with the sorts of apps
that aren’t possible on iOS—and that requires more flexibility
on Apple’s part.

I’m sorely tempted to say that the Mac of 2020 will include the
best of the iOS App Store, plus the sorts of apps that best
take advantage of the power and flexibility of the Mac. You
know, like Photoshop and Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro. But the
truth is, iOS is becoming so powerful that there’s no reason
that Final Cut or Logic couldn’t exist on iOS. (I use Ferrite
Recording Studio to edit podcasts on iOS, and it’s amazingly
good.)

No, a high-end video professional is probably not going to edit
a feature film in 4K on an iPad Pro, but they’re not going to
use a low-end MacBook either. If iOS is allowed to continue
growing and adapting, it’s hard to imagine Apple erecting
artificial barriers on iOS just to protect a few sacred areas
on the Mac.

As a longtime Mac user, I’m excited about getting iOS apps
translated over to my Mac—it’s well past time that the Home app
appear on macOS. But given the trajectory of iOS, it’s hard not
to see this as a temporary approach to making the Mac more
useful and viable until the point when iOS itself has the power
to accomplish almost anything. That will probably take quite a
while, but it feels closer this week than it did last week.

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