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macOS Monterey: The MacStories Review

OSes are never truly finished. macOS has been continuously evolving for decades, and it would be foolhardy to declare it ‘finished’ in any sense of the word. It’s not.

However, when you step back and look at macOS over time, trends and storylines emerge from the feature list minutiae of each release. For the past few years, no narrative thread has been more important to the Mac and its operating system than their realignment within Apple’s product lineup. It’s a fundamental transformation of both hardware and software that has taken shape over years, beginning publicly with Craig Federighi’s WWDC Sneak Peek in 2018.

The story begins with a Sneak Peek at the end of a WWDC keynote in 2018.

The story begins with a Sneak Peek at the end of a WWDC keynote in 2018.

A parallel story has been playing out with the iPad’s hardware and OS. The iPad’s trajectory has been different than the Mac’s, but today, we find ourselves with two distinct but more closely aligned platforms than ever before. To get there, the iPad has grown into a powerful, modular computer, while the latest Macs now run on the same processor architecture as the iPad Pro and no longer work differently in places just because that’s the way it’s always been.

The journey hasn’t always been easy, especially in the wake of questions about Apple’s commitment to the Mac. The company took those concerns head-on in an unusual meeting with a handful of tech writers in 2017. Still, it was only natural for users to question whether the direction macOS was heading was the correct one.

It didn’t help that those first Catalyst apps that were part of the 2018 Sneak Peek – Home, News, Stocks, and Voice Memos – were rough around the edges and a departure from long-held beliefs about what constitutes a great Mac app. The Mac’s apps had historically been held out as a shining example of the kind of user experiences and designs to which developers who cared about their apps could aspire. Unfortunately, many early Mac Catalyst apps weren’t very inspiring.

The realignment has been rocky for iPad users, too, especially for iPad Pro uses. The Pro’s hardware has been infrequently updated, and the performance of the Apple silicon processors they’ve run on has outpaced what the apps on the platform can do.

Users’ fears have also been fueled by Apple’s institutional secrecy and the multi-year scope of the company’s undertaking. Early communications about Mac Catalyst and SwiftUI left developers and observers confused about the role of each. The situation is more clear today, but at the same time, the question of how to approach building a Mac app is best answered with ‘it depends.’ That isn’t a very satisfying answer. Nor does it help that despite the added clarity, technologies like SwiftUI still have a long way to go to reach their full potential.

Catalina was full of promise, but the road ahead was unclear.

Catalina was full of promise, but the road ahead was unclear.

Yet despite the bumps along the road, macOS has made great strides since that 2018 Sneak Peek. With Catalina, we saw the first steps down a path that pointed the Mac in a new direction. Although sometimes messy, the promise of Catalina was exciting because, as I concluded in that review:

There’s no greater threat to the Mac than resistance to change that exists not because the change is worse, but because it’s different.

Catalina was a counter-strike against the sort of inertia that would have doomed macOS eventually, even though at the time, it was more a promise than a destination.

Big Sur's design changes brought the direction of macOS into sharper focus.

Big Sur’s design changes brought the direction of macOS into sharper focus.

Big Sur picked up where Catalina left off, adjusting course and clarifying where macOS was heading. The update continued the harmonization of user experiences across Apple’s entire lineup, creating a more natural continuum among the company’s products through new design language and updated system apps without abandoning what makes the Mac unique. I don’t mean to suggest that Catalina or Big Sur were unmitigated successes. They weren’t, and some of the missteps of those releases have yet to be addressed, but there was no mistaking where macOS was headed after the release of Big Sur.

Monterey harmonizes system app updates across all of Apple's platforms.

Monterey harmonizes system app updates across all of Apple’s platforms.

Monterey’s focus is all about system apps, a topic near and dear to me. With the technical building blocks in place and a refined design out of the way, Monterey is one of the most tangible, user-facing payoffs of the past three years of transition. More than ever before, Apple is advancing system apps across all of its platforms at the same time. Finally, everything is everywhere.

However, as much as it pleases me to see the groundwork laid in years past pay dividends in the form of new features being rolled out simultaneously on all platforms, Monterey’s payoff isn’t an unqualified success. Every OS release has its rough spots, but this year, Shortcuts is especially rough. As optimistic and excited as I remain for Shortcuts to be the future of automation on the Mac, it’s too frustrating to use at launch. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed any upside using Shortcuts on my Mac, and it has improved over the course of the beta period, but it still gets in my way more often than it should.

Alright, that’s enough looking back. Let’s dig in and see where things work, where they don’t, and what lies ahead when you install macOS Monterey.

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