Catalyst, Apple’s method for creating cross-platform applications for iPadOS and macOS, has officially landed with macOS Catalina and Xcode 11. The cross-platform app dream is coming to reality... but do you really care?
As we enter a new paradigm for app creation on Apple’s platforms, a blending of those platforms is starting to occur: iPadOS and macOS will soon be able to share a common binary for apps; the apps will be iPad apps, but Xcode will have tooling (Catalyst) that can make those apps available for the desktop proper. In a very basic sense, these are cross-platform apps, as Catalyst handles much of the tooling (such as keyboard support and window-sizing) that makes desktop apps shine.
As we’ve pointed out, this is equally amazing and frustrating. Apple made the tooling available to iPad and Mac, but left iPhone and Apple Watch in the lurch. This seems like an artificial boundary set in place to encourage developers to write for iPad and Mac; a single app across both will undoubtedly strengthen both app ecosystems, which are still left wanting compared to the iPhone app ecosystem.
Flipping the switch to allow iPhone and Apple Watch (for whatever that’s worth; we’re hard-pressed to think of an app made specifically for Apple Watch we’d also want for the desktop) apps to come to Catalyst is likely Apple’s next move. And until then, “cross-platform” is a placeholder term, not a firm truth. It’s difficult to consider an app cross-platform within Apple’s massive walled garden when the app can’t roam freely between iPadOS, macOS, iOS, tvOS, and watchOS.
Still, it’s something, and this is easily the best stab at cross-platform for native apps we’ve seen for modern architecture and platforms. Even with the aforementioned limitations, developers can write really solid iPadOS apps and make them immediately available to macOS with very little work.
But do technologists care? Much as we’re hard-pressed to think of an Apple Watch app we want specifically for the desktop, we’re also scratching our heads to think of an iPad app we’re desperate for on macOS. This is especially true for productivity or power-user apps; Pixelmator may make the best photo editing software for Apple platforms, but its iPad and Mac apps are very different, and the Mac version is far more feature-rich and powerful.
We have to wonder if such disparity between desktop and mobile apps is worth the trouble of starting from a common ground and adding features for the desktop. AppKit, Apple’s long-suffering framework for macOS apps, is essentially deprecated at this point, which only complicates matters.
It’s also early days. In a review of Catalina, The Verge’s Dieter Bohn points out even Apple didn’t get it all the way right, noting: “I don’t think we’re going to really know what this update will mean for the Mac until we know what happens with Catalyst apps. For Apple’s own software, Catalina’s biggest accomplishment is deconstructing iTunes into three separate apps. There’s still work to be done on Music, Podcasts, and Apple TV, but they’re a big step forward.”
But we want to know your take. Does “cross-platform” matter to you? Do you trust this is the future, or is Apple just tinkering with the app ecosystems of two platforms that need help? Let us know your opinion in the anonymous survey above!