Merging macOS and iOS at the app level

Sal Soghoian, former Automation lead at Apple, writing for MacStories:

Here's a thought experiment. Let's imagine that Apple decided to combine their engineering resources to form app teams that delivered both iOS and macOS versions of applications.

This, based on my understanding, is exactly what's been happening in the software engineering division recently. The thinking behind it, though, is nothing new. For a long time Apple's had a CoreOS group, among others, that worked on the underlying technologies central to both iOS and macOS. They're built on the same foundation, after all, so continuing to build out that foundation in as unified a way as possible simply makes sense.

Likewise, new technologies have been designed for both from the start. Swift, the programming language Apple debuted a few years ago, is one example. It's how developers will code for macOS and iOS in the future. Apple File System (APFS), announced last year, is the same. It'll eventually run everything from Watch to Mac.

Now, the same is true at the built-in app level. Getting the original iPhone and iPad to ship required enormous efforts, dedicated teams, and a ton of resource reallocation. Over the years, that resulted in some disparities. A few years ago Apple brought all if it back together under Craig Federighi, and now that same strategy is being applied to apps. Safari will be Safari at the code level. Mail will be Mail, Messages will be Messages, Calendar to be Calendar... you get the idea.

Having different code bases behind apps with the same name was never meant to be what differentiated iPhone and iPad from Mac. Having interfaces that best served the interaction models of each platform was. That's what end-users experience — the interface and interaction model. Everything else is pipes and plumbing hidden away beneath. The more of that stuff that's the same, the better. It improves compatibility and efficiency.

The iPhone and iPad remain multitouch devices optimized for direct manipulation, a hyper-accessible and mobile reimagining of the computer for the modern, mainstream world. Mac remains a mouse and pointer system — okay, now with Touch Bar! — and a traditional computer for those tasks that still require one.

Ideally, iOS will continue to benefit from the deep foundations of macOS, and macOS will continue to benefit from the innovations of iOS. Unfortunately, we don't always get ideals. Sometimes, short term, we'll get subsets that'll work on both. Long term, we'll get whatever, philosophically, Apple chooses to add back in and evolve further.

I'll spare you another regurgitation of iWork here.

In such a scenario it may seem logical to retain application features common to both platforms and to remove those that were perceived to require extra resources. Certainly Automation would be something examined in that regard, and the idea might be posited that: "App Extensions are equivalent to, or could be a replacement for, User Automation in macOS." And by User Automation, I'm referring to Apple Event scripting, Automator, Services, the UNIX command line utilities, etc.

I continue to believe that extensibility, introduced in iOS 8, is one of the most important developments in the history of the platform. It enables interoperability while maintaining privacy and security. Through Share Sheet and other manifestations, extensibility greatly accelerates the perceptive speed of the system and makes everything far more convenient. But extensibility is not automation.

Workflow (opens in new tab) is an iOS app that shows just how powerful "real" automation can be on iOS. It can also be accessed via extensibility. But that doesn't make extensibility itself a automator.

As much as I'd hate to see Workflow "Sherlocked" — copied at the system-level — by Apple, I'd love a base form of built-in automation on iOS. On the surface it's an incredibly niche feature but iOS has a way of making the niche more accessible to the mainstream.

Perhaps it is time for Apple and all of us to think of User Automation and App Extensions in terms of "AND" instead of "OR." To embrace the development of a new cross-platform automation architecture, maybe called "AutomationKit," that would incorporate the "everyman openness" of User Automation with the focused abilities of developer-created plugins. App Extensions could become the new macOS System Services, and Automator could save workflows as Extensions with access to the Share Menu and new "non-selection" extension points. And AutomationKit could even include an Apple Event bridge so that it would work with the existing macOS automation tools.

I sometimes think Apple is worried about making iOS too complex — making it too much like macOS — and so they take a long time figuring out features like copy and paste or drag and drop. I understand the concern but, in my mind, iPad and iPhone should be allowed to evolve as though the Mac didn't exist. (And vice-versa.) The only goal should be to be the best. Like Phil Schiller has said (paraphrase) — iPad should be so good it puts pressure on the Mac and Mac should be so good it puts pressure back on iPad.

Having one team responsible for Safari, Mail, Messages, etc. on both platforms is great and hopefully means that, going forward, "Sent with Fireworks" is something I'll never have to see on my Mac again. But it's also something I hope, eventually, elevates the built-in apps on both platforms in a way disparate teams never could.

Check out the rest of Sal's article and let me know what you think.

Update: I clarified some of the language above so my rapid change of topic wouldn't cause so much whiplash.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • "Imagine a world where there is no Mac" I see a world where there is a Mac, just not necessarily macOS. Imagine all of Apple's devices unified by a single architecture based on ARM / iOS with the only differentiation being the user interface: Mac => KB / mouse / trackpad
    iPad / iPhone => multi-touch / Pencil
    Watch => Crown / Force Touch
    ATV => Siri Remote Of course, it won't happen in the near future but 5 years? 10 years? I can see it. Apple can even unify the branding of its OS; maybe call it appleOS
  • Actually, I was expecting Apple to update the 12" MacBook with single and dual A10X processors when it introduced the new MacBook Pro models. Apple's ARM-based A10 processors in the iPhone 7 models have surpassed the low-end Intel processors used in the MacBook in both computing power and energy efficiency. Plus, the A10 is less expensive to produce than buying those Intel processors, and Apple would be in control of having the processors it needs when it needs them (rather than waiting and hoping that Intel will deliver its new processors on schedule). It would make sense for Apple to at least move the MacBook (Apple's low-end notebook) to ARM processors now, providing a faster, less expensive, more energy efficient MacBook. All it would take would be to adapt macOS to run on ARM processors (which Apple may have already done). Apple has made changes twice before in the past to re-write the Mac operating system to run on PowerPC processors, and then again to run on Intel processors. The move to ARM should be an even easier transition for Apple, since iOS is a derivative of OS X/macOS, and it has been running on ARM processors for 10 years now. As in the past, macOS third-party apps would run in emulation, until developers produced native versions of their apps. I was a bit disappointed that Apple hasn't made this move yet.
  • ShameerMulji, I agree with you that since iOS, tvOS, and watchOS are all variants of OS X (macOS), the only thing that differentiates them is that they have different interfaces geared to the hardware and usage of the different devices, and with removal of some of the features of macOS that are not required. I agree that this family of Apple operating systems should be renamed to appleOS (or OS). But since there are necessary differences between the operating systems, and since updates and version numbers will vary depending on which operating system and hardware needs updates, there should be a qualifier added to the name of each variant. For example: appleOS for Mac; appleOS for iPad; appleOS for AppleTV. This way users would know which variant of appleOS has a released update (for example: appleOS for Mac 12.2 [lose the "10"]). This way, Apple can be specific about the variant, but at the same time Apple can market "appleOS" to the public as a unified operating system.
  • That would be a developers nightmare, and ARM isn't emulation is going to eat away heavily at any alleged performance advantages. Apple didn't have to use an m3 in those expensive MacBook. They could have used the i5 in the NBA or even an j3 , for that matter. Once a laptop can reliably deliver 8 hours of battery life, Nythjing above that doesn't matter to me be sure it will be back on the charger before it does, anyways.
  • In a world where there is no Mac, as you describe, all you have is Apple Information Appliances. Ok, this is fine, but I still need and want MacOS. Without it I'd have to move to the next best thing, which will either be Windows or LINUX, or both actually. Now here's the dangerous part. Once I've stood over the grave, cried my eyes out, and thrown some dirt on macOS, I'm also tossing in my iPhone, iPad, and services over time. The Mac is the anchor to those services. What you describe sounds very very possible, but it hinges on how "powerful" this new OS is, and I really do not relish the idea of working in an environment that is as locked down and sandboxed as iOS is *all the time.* I love iOS, I live on my iPad(s), but when I sit down to do work, like most people, I need my big, bad, UNIX based OS with all my virtual machines, and filesystem, and automation, and command line, and real multitasking, and so on.
  • Don't scare me P I can never imagine there won't be a Mac..
  • This article is based on a very odd premise. Who on earth is worried about iOS becoming too Mac-like? I have literally never heard that idea expressed anywhere. In fact, I've often heard the opposite - that people WANT iOS to become more Mac-like. I'm not one of them, but it's a popular notion. I have also heard a lot of concern about Mac becoming too iOS-like., but as far as I know, the concern you're addressing doesn't exist.
  • The past has a lot of baggage and assumptions. The present and future let you examine them to see what is really great and what can be better. When thinking how to evolve iOS, internally, there seems to be no desire to do things just because the Mac does them, or to do them a specific way just because the Mac did them that way. That explain the premise better?
  • No. In fact, I don't see how your reply even relates to my comment. Your headline and article state that people are worried that iOS will become too Mac-like. Like I said, I don't think that worry exists. The 'blue sky' thinking you describe in your reply is great, and it's the right approach for Apple to take, but that has nothing to do with concerns about iOS being too Mac-like. Again, who is worried about that?
  • iOS needs to become more Mac-like if Apple want to promote the iPad as a laptop replacement. Hopefully they will increase the number of app extensions and also add some sort of automation functionality with a very simple graphic interface. Such functionality needn’t make the Workflow app redundant if it isn’t as comprehensive as that app. It may even help sales because it will make lots of potential new Workflow customers aware of the concept. Instapaper did fine even after simple offline reading was introduced in iOS6. As an aside that’s a great photo of the Pont du Gard in the attached article. A fantastic example of two thousand year old technology.
  • That's the point of view of a very small segment of their customer base, though. For many, many people, PCs (including Macs) are complex to the point of being unapproachable. iPhone and iPad were the first computers they could successfully use and relate to. Losing that is the opposite of what Apple's entire history has been about — democratizing technology and making computers ever more accessible. Balancing both is a huge challenge.
  • As you say it’s the balance that is the challenge, but I don’t think that you need to sacrifice simplicity in order to provide more powerful workflow functionality. With macOS there is a wide band of user capabilities, from those who only use the most common Apple apps through to those users who are comfortable working at the command line level. As you say iOS caters for users that even macOS can’t cater for at one end of the band, but I think that it could also stretch further in the other direction than it currently does. And it could do this without over-complicating the simple tasks. Although I am not suggesting that there be a “terminal” app for iOS!
  • My biggest concern here is that Mac apps will get dumbed down. As I look at the application stack that I run on my iOS devices vs. my Macs there are few apps that I run on iOS that have the features that I get when I am running some equivalent Mac app. Sure Mail, calendar iMessage are almost ubiquitous but even applications like MS Office have a long way to go on iOS.
  • RIP mailing lists in Pages. :(
  • These are core apps, and it goes both ways. Mac has sometimes been behind when it comes to the new features iOS versions have been getting.
  • Applications that are not developed by Apple, are down to the developers as to how many features to include, you'd have to complain to the respective developers to fix that. In terms of Apple's apps, they usually aren't dumbed down much, so other developers have no excuse
  • Well. it would solve allot of things u gotta admit... Having one code base to work with, one app to work with and one price point for both. vs separate coding for Mac and iOS, separate stores to put it on, and separate price points as have now.. oh yea, and lets not forget separate compatibility as well re-released apps disappear from one (That could be the only advantage of having to code for two) You have a choice.
  • This would be a bad move imho. Solidifying will hinder what Mac software can do. For instance, when a Mac messes up with POP mail, I can go in to the files and hopefully find the data. On iOS I'm S.O.L. Same with backups. Same with restores. Same with anything basically. Macs have more tweaking, and customizing than iOS (although it'd be great if iOS had that too). If they unify things, then I can't do my favorite terminal commands to fix what Apple breaks. As in: sudo chmod 000 ~/Library/Saved Application States sudo srm ~/.Trash (since secure delete still matters on spinning HDD's but Apple thinks they know better) Actually being able to look inside the broken Photos Library blob as maybe I want to access it outside Apple Or using apps that Apple doesn't approve of, or apps that have content that may be the flavor of the week to hate (Apple removed apps with the confederate flag, but not the bad guy German flag from WWII (can't say their name here for some reason)). I can even gimp notifications on a Mac if I want. I shouldn't be forced to see what apps are spamming me. I will open the app if I want to. Just this morning on my iPhone, as a passenger, iOS decided I needed a notification on the top of my iPhone screen for navigation for a good two miles. I'd love to be able to fix this, because even if I dismissed it it came right back. This is from Apple Maps as GMaps doesn't work with CarPlay.
  • I really really really want to stop using my 2007 17-inch MBP for everything and switch to iPadPro for good. 2 things are holding me back - first, i need a reference manager that can talk to a word processor to insert and format citations for manuscripts (currently that is done with Endnote/Mendeley and Word) - maybe this automation-type stuff could handle this app interaction? Second, I need the ability to do some sort of time machine-esque backup, and the ability to access segments of that data from an internal network drive. I know tools for access to exist, but I don't want / can't allow my data to go into any kind of off-site storage cloud. I hope iOS gains some MacOS functionality in this regard but I'm not holding my breath.
  • Imagine a world where Apple doesn't oversimplify everything; doesn't strip away features; doesn't shut down a beloved, inhabited building forcing the tennants to live in a barely half finished skyscraper that doesn't have half of the amenities the old one did, and will likely never get finished before the spoiled coders get bored and want to make useless f'n stickers. (This was a bad metaphor about their software)
    Imagine a world where Apple is f'n consistent accross their user interface; cancel buttons are always on the left of my iPhone; keyboard shortcuts are THE SAME from macOS to iOS, and the F'N WORK in every application (opt+delete only works 50% of apps in iOS).
    Imagine a world where my overpriced communication devices would properly notify me of incoming communications!
    Imagine a world where my iPhone's battery shaming tabulation actually showed everything that was draining my battery - apps used in the "Past 24 hours" only adds up to 2 hours of use, but my battery charge is at 20%, claiming at the bottom of the page that I've used it for 6 hours, 8-10 hours standby.
    Imagine a world where we can actually dig in and diagnose and fix the problems with our computers, rather than only told we have to restore from scratch and start all over again, only to find the same problems a month down the road.
    Imagine a world where I can scroll a way-too-long forum post window in a web-page without the entire page scrolling.
    Imagine a world where they don't take away a useful function in trade for an unintuitive, hardly useful gimmick. Why the F did they have to remove the function keys to add the Mystically Magical Fantasticalicious TouchWizzery Bar? There's plenty of room on all of those laptops to have both. ****, they could have put the touch strip at the BOTTOM OF THE SCREEN. That would make more sense to me, since it's a screen, I'd rather it face me.
    Imagine a world where Apple didn't do the crap their customers don't want them to do.
    Imagine a world where I don't ramble on and on and on about pointless stuff.
  • iOS seldom has issues that you need to diagnose and fix, at least where you would need more control than what iOS currently gives, due to the constraints of iOS itself. Not sure what you mean by "scroll a way-too-long forum post window in a web-page without the entire page scrolling.", is this an iOS issue? Do you have an example website? As for the Touch Bar, it's proved really useful for a lot of people, and the majority of Mac users don't use the function keys, but you can still display them on the Touch Bar, so they're not gone really. Placing the Touch Bar on the screen would've been really awkward to touch, you're not considering the ergonomics of this.
  • Apple made Workflow would have full system access while protecting its own scripts. Then add a store for scripts that vets them, further protecting the system. Only Apple could do this.
  • There is no question that we need both. My concern goes beyond whether Apple will make a new Mac Pro that I need. If they dumb macOS down to the level of iOS, then we're done for.
  • macOS may have been dumbed down somewhat already, but you still have access to the terminal and the ability to tweak many parts of the OS, so as long as that functionality stays we shouldn't be in too much trouble
  • So you want the apps to be merged at the core, with different user interaction models depending on the device? Hey welcome to Windows 10!
  • Didn't Microsoft do this app-merger after Apple with Windows 10 ? So in actual fact it would be:- Microsoft follows Apple
    Apple follows Microsoft
  • No. Apple hasn't done this. Microsoft has the Unjveral Windows Pkatform, which does exactly what Rene stated. I don't use any of those apps, because phone and tablet apps are not useful in a full PC. They don't offer enough. I recently moved back to Office and because Apple's apps are hard to use due to the feature disparities and fitting to bring them in line with iOS apps.
  • In many areas this approach makes sense. However, the current approach has left us with far less powerful iWork and iLife suites. This means that the Mac has less appeal because I no longer use these apps.
  • It's interesting because I came to macOS after the iWork apps were updated, so I don't fully know what's missing from the new ones, however most things I used to do with Microsoft Office I can do with the current iWork apps, so for me personally I'm not affected. But I guess if I knew what features iWork had before, maybe I would've found them really useful
  • I would like to think there will always be a difference tween iOS and Mac coding, but just the fusing of iOS being bought "Back to the Mac: as Tim said.. With more OS releases comes more and more iOS-type, we can now do on both... but the coding would still remain different... That's probably one thing I "could" see happen I think what would be more better question would be "Would you like to see MacOS with the same security and limed features of a phone/tablet only" ? That would be unable to install mac apps and unable to do the things we take for granted as a Mac user today.
  • They couldn't do that, there's way too many useful applications out there that aren't available on the Mac App Store, people would flee from macOS like the plague. iOS gets away with this because you generally don't need to do as much on a smartphone as you do on a computer, plus the iOS App Store has a much wider and vast array of Apps than the macOS App Store. The only applications I'd like to have on my iPhone that I can't get through the iOS App Store, are emulators. Most interesting applications that were available via Jailbreak have had their functionality integrated into the OS in some way, and that continues to follow suit with every iteration of iOS
  • Has Apple's OS tech and App Tech advanced enough where they could provide a common OS that:
    • Adapts to the user's needs
    • Provides the requisite level of security/privacy for the work being performed
    • Is able to exploit the capabilities of the device(s)
    For example:
    • An iPad Pro [separate] kb with a trackpad and cursor on the display
    • CLI and OAS Scripting for the OS and Apps on the Macs and, where appropriate, on iDevices
    • A Mac App (like FCPX) with an iPad Pro directly connected (high speed) as a separate Display, Graphics Tablet, Touch I/O Controls for the Mac App
  • Only cursor control I want is for the text cursor. A track pad for that, sure: that solves a problem. Other than that, better k/b shortcuts and maybe-someday-eventually touch bar support. Mouse pointer? No thank you. Now one purchase for iOS/macOS, that I would love. Give devs the option.