Better both worlds than the best of both worlds

Tech Life

When I sat at my Mac to start writing this article, I knew I had to link to a series of past observations, because it’s not the first time I’ve spoken my mind about the iOS vs Mac OS debate. Checking the archives, I realised I’ve already written a piece that sums up all those past observations, wraps them up, and builds on them: it’s Tap swipe hold scroll flick drag drop from June 2017. I urge you to read that before proceeding, to better understand my stance on the matter. This article, in fact, builds on that one.

There is a group of tech geeks who love iOS so much that they’ve gone to great lengths to reconfigure their hardware setups and software workflows to be iOS-first or iOS-only. More power to them, sincerely. But they’re also the people who, more or less directly, have contributed to spread this nasty ‘iOS vs Mac OS’ mentality I’ll always refuse to espouse, since I think that the best of both worlds is using both worlds and taking advantage of what each does best.

Instead, proponents of the iOS-only way of life have moved through two main phases. The first was emphasising how iOS was simpler and more intuitive to use than Mac OS; how iOS devices are more portable, more convenient, more battery efficient and simultaneously just as powerful as Mac laptops.

It’s true, the hardware advantage of the iOS platform is undeniable. But which is the better platform from a software and interface standpoint is certainly a more subjective question. It is also undeniable that for several iterations before iOS 11, iOS has been more lacking in flexibility than Mac OS, leading to a certain frustration among iOS-first users who found themselves with powerful hardware — the iPad Pro line — driven by an operating system that barely scratched the surface of that hardware’s potential.

The iPad-specific features introduced in iOS 11 have been a noteworthy step towards more flexibility and power for the platform. And so now we’re witnessing phase two: iOS-first power users who want even more pro features and solutions for iOS (and especially iOS-on-the-iPad); they want a dream device I’ve humorously called the ‘Apple Surface Pro’ — something with Mac-like hardware running an even more ‘pro’ flavour of iOS.

My position on this isn’t to sarcastically remark Not gonna happen, folks. I actually think Apple may produce some sort of 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrid if the company thinks it could appeal to a large-enough audience. It’s not the hardware that concerns me (and I believe it doesn’t concern Apple, either) — it’s the software.

The days of iOS behaving the same way on every device are over. iOS 11 in particular has made that abundantly clear. This is good: both iOS hardware and software have matured and reached a point where it’s simply ridiculous to treat the iPad as ‘just a big iPhone’ — or the iPhone as a small iPad for that matter. The price to pay for this emancipation of iOS on the iPad, as I wrote in Tap swipe hold scroll flick drag drop, has been an added layer of complexity to the OS: more features, and more gestures, not all as intuitive as the ‘primitives’ established in the first half of iOS’s history.

Now, I can see the coolness factor in having a new iOS-driven Apple Surface Pro device; a sort of super-tablet that can become anything you want — a pleasantly intuitive tool for drawing, sketching and painting with an Apple Pencil; an eBook reader; a media player on the go… Then you dock it to its keyboard component (which is more than just a keyboard and may even have USB-C ports and an SD slot), and you can use it as an ultraportable notebook computer for a series of professional tasks requiring this particular form factor.

But how to handle all this from a software perspective? So far, what we’ve seen on iPhones and iPads is that certain iOS features and/or UI gestures are available or not according to the specific hardware. iOS will behave slightly differently if you’re using an iPhone 8, or an iPhone X, or an iPhone SE, or an iPhone 5s. On the iPad, the fifth-generation ‘regular’ iPad is a bit more limited than the iPad Pro. Supporting a new iOS-driven 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrid would involve designing and introducing another layer of complexity in iOS.

Whether Apple evolved iOS monolithically to support these fabled new pro features to reveal them to the user only on supported devices, while keeping things ‘simple’ on simpler devices; or created a separate ‘iOS Pro’ system flavour to specifically drive this hypothetical new Apple Surface Pro device, the fragmentation and complication of the platform would be inevitable. It would also be quite resource-draining for Apple, which is already struggling to keep all its software platforms running with an acceptable degree of quality assurance. Pushing iOS to this kind of next level is not unfeasible, but I wonder how big the impact would be on other endeavours, Mac OS in particular. And on iOS itself.

Ryan Christoffel’s article, What I Wish the iPad Would Gain from the Mac — which I’ve seen frequently quoted by other sources in my feeds as of late — definitely makes for an intriguing reading. In his conclusion, Christoffel writes:

The iPad is already proving a formidable Mac-alternative for some users – what happens if it continues closing the gap by adopting the Mac strengths I’ve listed? If the iPad offered support for multiple instances of an app, was available in a more diverse array of hardware, allowed apps to get things done persistently in the background, was home to Xcode, Final Cut Pro, and Logic Pro equivalents, and became a proper shared device with multiple user accounts – why would people continue using the Mac?

What happens may be nirvana for iOS-only power users, but I also wonder whether it’s worth going to all this trouble to get to a point we have already reached today with the Mac. I closed the tweet that inspired this piece saying that, in my opinion, both platforms — iOS and Mac OS — may lose in the long run. What I meant is:

  1. That iOS, in all this effort to get more specialised, more ‘pro’, more Mac-like, ends up becoming less intuitive and approachable by regular people who don’t really care to use iOS and an iOS device in a power-user way, even if it’s the only device they have. The feature creep has certainly brought new capabilities to the platform, but also more complexity. Today I see a lot of people in Apple Stores that seek training to familiarise themselves with iOS devices, and my data might be anecdotal and all, but in the pre-iOS 7 days regular people seemed to pick up the gestures and the Multi-touch interface much more quickly and with less intervention from tech-savvy users or Apple Store staff.
  2. That Mac OS becomes more and more neglected, as both Apple and third-party developers devote more attention to iOS. That Mac OS is allowed to turn into a weaker platform because, as iOS cannibalises Mac OS features, Mac OS in return receives lukewarm apps that are mostly lazy iOS ports or little more than Web apps wrapped in a cumbersome, un-Mac-like UI. (And also loses features — see how the next Mac OS Server release will deprecate a number of services.)

If everything that has been hypothesised above (in my article and in Christoffel’s piece) should come true, we’re going to be living in ‘interesting’ times for sure. We might end up with a platform that, in trying to be more like its older sibling, a) loses its identity as really simple, really intuitive and friendly environment, especially for tech-averse people; and b) fails to be as powerful and versatile as Mac OS already is now. And as for Mac OS, its development path might be hampered by the shift towards iOS and, more dangerously, by the spreading idea and attitude among iOS-only fans that it all has to be a zero-sum game, that for iOS to win, Mac OS should lose. I’m worried that the efforts to achieve a product or platform that is supposedly the best of both words, might lead to sacrificing what is already really great about each of those worlds.

iOS and Mac OS are different platforms, with different user interfaces, different input methods, different paradigms, different approaches. I think that working to make both platforms shine by doubling down on their respective merits and strengths ultimately makes for a richer scenario. You just can’t keep adding features to iOS indiscriminately in order to turn it into a desktop-level operating system. And you can’t keep fiddling with Mac OS in a way that, instead of making the operating system more robust and refined, makes it increasingly buggier[1].

It’s also important to never lose sight of the limitations imposed by the vary nature of each platform. Pro apps can exist on iOS, but their degree of versatility and powerfulness is dictated by the task one wants to carry out, and the limitations of a platform’s paradigm. Multi-touch is a fun type of user interaction, but its input capabilities are more limited than those of a keyboard and a mouse. That’s why a hypothetical Logic or Final Cut for iOS can’t realistically be as powerful or versatile as the same applications on the Mac. iPads and iPhones certainly have capable processors, but raw CPU power isn’t everything in this equation. The very nature of the Mac’s user interface, its input methods, its paradigms, all these allow for complex yet usable UI layers and elements; for small yet precise controls, designed to be handled by a mouse; for a great number of contextual menus and commands, easily discoverable with a right-click; for an interface that’s 100% visible all the time, because your fingers or hands don’t get in the way while you’re tapping, scrolling, scrubbing or swiping.

Each platform can evolve by carefully considering its winning characteristics and figuring out new applications that leverage such characteristics. Augmented Reality (AR) could be a step in an interesting direction for mobile devices, once it gets (if it gets) past its current gimmick state. While the Mac can really become — or rather, get back to being — the platform for professionals, with high-end machines and suitable pro-level applications that take advantage of the tried-and-true user interface of Mac OS, and the sheer power, connections, and expandability of an iMac Pro or Mac Pro.

Maintaining the focus so that cars can be the best cars, and trucks the best trucks[2], shouldn’t be regarded as rigidity but as a renewed clarity of vision for each platform. I may be wrong, but I’m afraid that going after a ‘best of both worlds’ trajectory might just bring more compromises that negatively impact both iOS and Mac OS down the road.

Stray observations

  • When it comes to debating these topics among tech enthusiasts, I really wish we could lose the ‘iOS versus Mac OS’ approach and mentality. I really wish people would stop framing these matters as Mac OS is old and should be retired, while iOS is fresh, it’s the future, and can do everything Mac OS does and better. The truth is that keeping both platforms around — and healthy — is really the best course of action to provide a satisfactory multi-device ecosystem. As someone who masters both Mac OS and iOS, the user experience and level of productivity I derive from the combination of both is much better and more complete than choosing just one platform in the misguided belief that it can be a complete substitute for both.
  • In case I wasn’t clear earlier, I’m not arguing that iOS should remain ‘dumb’, while Mac OS remains the ‘smart’ sibling. I’m just saying that simplicity should always be top priority when it comes to iOS. Because simplicity is what has always made iOS stand out as an operating system — its ability to simplify a series of tasks and activities which regular people used to find a bit awkward to perform on a traditional computer or, worse, on a netbook. Pushing iOS to act more like a traditional computer’s OS kind of defeats the purpose. A lateral counterexample: In the evolution of watchOS there has been a course correction that has taken account of the limits of the smartwatch’s interface and user interaction more closely and more thoughtfully, greatly benefitting the user experience and the platform as a result.

    • 1. The awful release that is Mac OS High Sierra, combined with all the issues that have been reported about the hardware quality of the MacBook/MacBook Pro line, isn’t doing the Mac platform any favours. It’s unfortunate that Mac OS is losing trust and ground this way. ↩︎
    • 2. I’m referring to the famous analogy made by Steve Jobs a few years back. See here, for example. ↩︎


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