It was a pleasure to spend time with David Sparks and Stephen Hackett talking about Catalyst apps on the Mac for episode 513 of Mac Power Users. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and covering Catalyst for the past 18 months since Apple gave developers a sneak peek at it during WWDC in 2018, so it was a lot of fun to join Sparks and Hackett to take stock of where Catalyst stands today and where it’s heading. Of course, we also covered a long list of our favorite Catalyst apps.
Posts tagged with "Catalyst"
So far, the most common path to releasing a Mac Catalyst app on the Mac App Store has been to adapt and release an existing iPadOS app as a first-time Mac app. However, that’s not the only route to the Mac App Store. Apple allows developers to use Mac Catalyst in a variety of ways, as Steve Troughton-Smith has demonstrated with HCC Solitaire, a Mac-only game built using Mac Catalyst. He and Brian Mueller, the creator of CARROT Weather, have also used Mac Catalyst to release new versions of Mac apps that were previously built with AppKit.
As Troughton-Smith’s HCC Solitaire confirms, developers are not required to have an iPad app on the App Store to release an app on the Mac App Store using Mac Catalyst.
HCC Solitaire! An exploration of Catalyst, for Science™; this is a Catalyst app that exists only for Mac and has no corresponding iOS app. It also happens to be the kind of cute, ultra-simple, ad-free Solitaire game I want to play — maybe you too? https://t.co/8jdiADkGZr pic.twitter.com/dQQjWCsUDR
— Steve Troughton-Smith (@stroughtonsmith) October 14, 2019
The game is an implementation of classic solitaire that’s just $0.99 and displays no ads. Perhaps most interesting from a developer standpoint, though, is that you won’t find HCC Solitaire if you search for an iOS or iPadOS version on the App Store. Troughton-Smith built the game using UIKit and the tools provided as part of Mac Catalyst without also creating an iPadOS version.
Mac Catalyst apps can also be swapped in for existing Mac apps. That’s what Brian Mueller did with CARROT Weather, which was launched the day macOS Catalina was released as version 4.13 of his existing AppKit app. Troughton-Smith took the same approach with SameGame, a color-matching game in which you earn points by eliminating contiguous blocks that are the same color, releasing version 2.2 shortly after Catalina’s release.
I don’t expect either of these approaches to become the main way that Mac Catalyst apps are released, but I’m glad to see that it’s possible. Most developers will be bringing an iPadOS app to the Mac for the first time, but business models, developer backgrounds, the APIs used in an app, and many other variables play a role in the decision of whether to use Mac Catalyst. It’s encouraging to see Apple take a flexible approach and allow developers to experiment because that makes Mac Catalyst useful to more of them. However, as I noted in my Catalina review and elsewhere, that flexibility needs to be coupled with bug fixes, documentation, and rapid evolution of Mac Catalyst for it to become a viable option for a wider audience of developers.
I often find myself reaching for my iPhone or iPad to do something that can’t be done at all or as quickly on my Mac. If I’m already working at my desk in front of my Mac, though, that requires a context switch that slows me down and often leads to being distracted by something else. One of the areas where this happens most frequently is with specialized, single-purpose utilities that are plentiful on iOS and iPadOS, but often unavailable on the Mac.
A terrific example that just debuted on the Mac as a Mac Catalyst app is MakePass, an app for generating Apple Wallet passes. Whether it’s a health club membership card, bus pass, grocery store loyalty card, or concert ticket, MakePass can turn them all into digital passes stored inside Apple’s Wallet app where they are organized and out of the way.
Several apps offer functionality similar to MakePass’ on the iOS and iPadOS App Store. However, my searches turned up none on the Mac App Store. That may be because Apple’s Wallet app is an iPhone-only app, but it’s handy to be able to make passes on your Mac too because that’s one of the places where codes come into your life.
There’s more to migrating an iPad app to the Mac than simply checking a box in Xcode. Although developers need to resort to AppKit APIs used to build Mac apps for some functionality, thoughtful design that respects the interaction model of the Mac is a significant part of the process too.
Vidit Bhargava is the designer behind the dictionary app LookUp and the cofounder of Squircle Apps. Bhargava, who we interviewed in the most recent issue of MacStories Weekly for Club MacStories, has written an in-depth look at how much of the process of bringing LookUp’s iPad app to the Mac was about design. As he explains:
I’m sharing this design document to highlight some of the design considerations I made for bringing LookUp’s iOS App to macOS. And while I did use fall backs to AppKit in certain situations (Even though I had no prior knowledge to AppKit, the APIs were relatively easy to get to), I still feel that a lot of apps can design a good experience without having to use them.
We’ve covered the iOS and iPadOS version of LookUp before and love it. On the Mac, there are dozens of little touches implemented throughout the app that make LookUp one of the best examples of an excellent Mac Catalyst app. What I find most fascinating is how familiar but also unmistakably Mac-like LookUp’s Mac design is, which is why it was one of a handful of apps that I spotlighted in my macOS Catalina review.
Bhargava’s full post is worth a read because it’s fully-illustrated with examples of the differences between the iPad and Mac designs, early prototypes, and the evolution of the app’s design.
For the full Twitter experience on Mac, visit Twitter on web. 👉 https://t.co/fuPJa3nVky
— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) February 16, 2018
Given the lack of support for the app leading up to that point, Twitter’s actions weren’t surprising. However, that left Mac users with only Twitter’s web app or third-party apps until yesterday, when the company released a Mac Catalyst version of their iPad app.
Twitter’s iPad app isn’t known for a strong design:
Four years have passed since Federico tweeted that and Twitter’s iPad client hasn’t gotten much better, which left me skeptical about what a Mac Catalyst version of Twitter’s app would look like. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well the port works on the Mac despite some rough edges.
In June I wrote about my hopes for Catalyst, the technology that allows iPadOS developers to bring their iPad apps to the Mac. At the time, I said that RSS clients were one of the categories of apps I wanted to see brought from the iPad to the Mac first. That wasn’t because there are no options on the Mac. For instance, I recently reviewed NetNewsWire, which is excellent. However, there are very few options if you want an app that’s available on the Mac, iOS, and iPadOS, supports a rich set of features, and is actively maintained. That’s why I was pleased to see that lire, one of my favorite RSS readers on iOS and iPadOS, was released this week on the Mac using Catalyst.
If you’ve used lire on an iPad, you’ll immediately feel at home when you open the app on the Mac for the first time. The layout is similar to the iPad version, with one notable exception: instead of the two columns you see on the iPad, lire displays three columns on the Mac. This means you can view your list of subscriptions, articles, and a selected article simultaneously. On the iPad, the article view is separate from your subscriptions and article list. It’s a small design change that makes a lot of sense on the Mac, where screens are usually larger than the iPad. I would, however, like to have the option of hiding the first two columns, which is not currently possible, though they can be resized.
If you use lire with an RSS syncing service like I do, once you log in you can browse sources in the first column by subscription and tag. Like the iOS and iPadOS versions, the first column also includes Discover and Folders sections. Discover collects Hot Links, which are URLs that frequently appear among your feeds, Calm Feeds for sites that don’t publish often, linked list articles, posts organized by author, and articles published recently, which you can define in the app’s preferences. As you’d expect, folders are user-defined sets of feeds.
The article list can be filtered in nine different ways, and there’s a toolbar button to mark everything as read. Right-clicking an article summary provides options to open it in a separate window, mark it as read or unread, star it, mark the articles above or below it as read, mark everything as read, send it to a read-later service, or share it via the system share sheet or lire’s custom share options. The many options make the article list a fantastic way to filter and scan through a large number of articles and manage the ones you want to follow up on and share with other apps.
There are separate appearance settings for article view, which is a nice way to manage the amount of information available independently from the subscription and article list. The article view also includes buttons for marking the currently-viewed article as unread, starring and tagging it, navigational arrows, and a share button that includes share options supplied by the macOS share system as well as custom ones like ‘Copy Link,’ ‘Pin Author,’ ‘Download as EPUB,’ and more.
I’ve used a lot of different RSS readers, and lire has always stood out because it can be customized in so many different ways. The app also does a better job than most other RSS clients of pulling the full text of an article from an RSS feed that offers truncated versions of its articles only. Although some features of the iOS and iPadOS apps aren’t available on the Mac yet, such as theming, I’ve been impressed with the level of customization that’s been brought over so far.
However, what makes lire one of the best Catalyst adaptations of an iPad app that I’ve seen so far is its attention to detail on the Mac. It’s a collection of smaller touches that make the app feel more at home on the Mac than most other Catalyst apps. For example, lire includes tooltips when you hover the pointer over the buttons in its toolbar. That’s something that isn’t automatically available to Catalyst apps, so few apps have adopted it so far. Lire has also implemented custom right-click context menus throughout the app to access share, view, mark as read, and other options. The app also makes extensive use of keyboard shortcuts and allows for links to be opened in your default browser in the background, something that far too few AppKit apps offer. I also appreciate that lire uses a separate Preferences window instead of a popup view that hovers over but is still part of the app’s main window, which many Catalyst apps do.
RSS feeds have benefitted from the healthy app competition found on iOS and iPadOS, pushing power user features forward at a rapid pace. The Mac’s RSS scene hasn’t been nearly as active in the past, but with the addition of lire and Fiery Feeds, which also launched on the Mac App Store for the first time this week, my hope is that we’ll see a resurgence of RSS readers on the Mac App Store with innovative new features.
James Thomson, the creator of PCalc, has written about his experience with Catalyst. Thomson, who was one of the developers that spoke with Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman about the challenges Catalyst poses to developers and their customers, expounds on what he told Gurman, saying about PCalc that:
It became pretty clear to me that I would need to rewrite a lot of the user interface, to find a happy middle ground between the iPad and the Mac. Which would probably benefit both in the long run, to be fair. But with everything else that was going on this summer, I couldn’t justify that work, with no guarantees at the end of the day that I would have something I was happy to ship. So, I mainly focused my time on things like Shortcuts and Dark Mode, and iOS 13 support in general.
Thomson goes on to explain that while it was simple to get a version of PCalc’s iOS app running on the Mac, the APIs for dealing with macOS-specific features felt rough and unfinished.
That’s something I’ve heard from a lot of developers who were initially excited about Catalyst. They also had their hands full dealing with iOS and iPadOS 13, and bugs in both OSes slowed them down over the summer. As a result, many put their Catalyst plans on the back burner.
Thomson also says that:
Documentation for Catalyst has been almost non-existent too, which has made things a lot harder than they should be.
From the business side, there is also no way for somebody to get the Catalyst version of the app for free when they buy the iOS version. And no great way to share in-app purchases either if you have a free app. That generally means that somebody will have to pay a second time to get a copy.
Instead of pushing forward with a Catalyst version of PCalc, which is already available for the Mac as a traditional AppKit app, Thomson created a Catalyst version of Dice by PCalc, his physics-based multi-sided dice simulation that can be used for games like Dungeons & Dragons. Based on his experience with Dice, which is available on the Mac App Store now, Thomson concluded that Catalyst isn’t far enough along to build a version of PCalc that is better than his existing Mac app, but he remains hopeful that the situation will improve.
From what I’ve heard from developers, Thomson is not alone in his experience with Catalyst. That’s not to say there aren’t useful apps being made with Catalyst, but so far, the pool of apps is small, and if it’s going to grow, Catalyst is going to have to evolve rapidly.
Catalyst, the technology that allows developers to bring their iPadOS apps to the Mac, is off to an uneven start, as Mark Gurman of Bloomberg recounts through interviews with several developers. According to the developers interviewed, there’s a big difference between getting an iPad app up and running on a Mac, and using it to build a high-quality Mac app. According to Gurman:
[PCalc developer James] Thomson said the Mac version of his iPad calculator app initially looked like an iPad app floating on a larger Mac screen, so he had to redesign much of the user-facing software. However, all of the lower-level code pretty much worked out of the box, he said. Lukas Burgstaller said it was initially easy to copy over his Fiery Feeds iPad app, but then he “ran into all sorts of walls” trying to adapt the software to a Mac interface.
Those and other rough edges experienced by developers are exacerbated by a long-standing limitation of the Mac App Store: Mac apps can’t be bundled with iOS and iPadOS apps. That means developers have no choice but to charge separately for their new Catalyst apps, risking the ire of customers.
Although I remain optimistic about Catalyst, it’s off to a rougher start than I’d hoped, as I discuss in my macOS Catalina review. The quality of the relatively small crop of early Catalyst apps demonstrates that the technology holds promise, but Apple needs to move quickly to close the gaps. Otherwise the company risks alienating both developers and users, which would be a significant blow to its Mac strategy.
Ironically, Apple chose to name this year’s update to macOS after an island. Since the iPhone and iOS took off, macOS has sometimes felt like an island isolated from the rest of the company’s OSes, but the goal articulated by the company at WWDC this year was quite the opposite. Apple clearly telegraphed that change is coming to the Mac and it’s designed to bridge the user experiences between each of its platforms.
To developers, that message came in the form of Catalyst and SwiftUI. Catalyst, which was previewed as an unnamed ‘Sneak Peek’ in 2018, is meant to make it easier for iPadOS developers to bring their apps to the Mac. SwiftUI has a similar longer-term goal of unifying and streamlining how developers build the interfaces for their apps across a range of devices, for everything from the Apple Watch to the Mac.
The efforts to draw macOS in closer with Apple’s other operating systems run deeper than just developer tools though. macOS may have been the foundation on which iOS was built, but in the years that followed iOS’s introduction, the two OSes grew apart. Identically-named apps were developed on different schedules, which meant they rarely included the same features. Also, system-level functionality like System Preferences, which serves the same purpose as iOS’s Settings app, was unfamiliar, making Mac adoption unnecessarily hard for newcomers. Catalina is an attempt to address those kinds of inconsistent user experiences.
With Catalina, Apple has taken clear, though not always successful, steps to bridge the divide between the Mac and iOS. App functionality has been realigned, System Preferences has been rearranged, and new features have been added to make it easier to move from one platform to the other.
As with other transitional periods in the Mac’s history, this one isn’t going to be easy. However, because the change is driven by a fundamental change in computing, it’s also necessary. We live in a new climate where computing is now dominated by mobile devices. For many people, a smartphone is all the computing power they need day-to-day. That doesn’t mean there’s no longer a place for the Mac, but it’s clearly what’s driving the changes in Catalina.
Apple could have chosen to ignore the shift of the ground beneath its feet and merely maintained macOS, making the kind of small incremental changes we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. However, not adapting is as deliberate a choice as change is, and it carries just as much or more uncertainty for the Mac as a platform because it risks irrelevance.
The Mac isn’t in crisis, but it isn’t healthy either. Waiting until the Mac is on life support isn’t viable. Instead, Apple has opted to reimagine the Mac in the context of today’s computing landscape before its survival is threatened. The solution is to tie macOS more closely to iOS and iPadOS, making it an integrated point on the continuum of Apple’s devices that respects the hardware differences of the platform but isn’t different simply for the sake of difference.
Transitions are inherently messy, and so is Catalina in places. It’s a work in process that represents the first steps down a new path, not the destination itself. The destination isn’t clear yet, but Catalina’s purpose is: it’s a bridge, not an island.