As the iPhone and iPad have grown in popularity, there’s been a definite feeling in some corners that the Mac is being left behind by many app developers. It’s not uncommon to see a great app released for iOS with either no Mac counterpart at all, or Mac implementations that only scratch the bare minimum of what can be done on macOS.
There have been reports coming out of Apple for a while now that the company is planning to address this by creating a unified development platform, code-named “Marzipan,” that would allow developers to more easily “port” their existing iOS apps over to macOS as well as developing multi-platform apps without needing to create entirely separate code bases.
Now, according to a new report by Bloomberg, Apple has set a goal of having the frameworks fully available by 2021, with the first components arriving later this year — most likely as part of an announcement at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in June.
The first phase is expected to be in the form of a software development kit (SDK) that will allow developers to port their existing iPad apps over to the Mac. Although these won’t be “universal” apps — single packages that run on both iOS and macOS — the move will make it easier for developers to create Mac versions of their iPad apps for submission to Apple’s Mac App Store without having to write and maintain a separate software code base for the Mac.
By 2020, Apple will extend the SDK to allow iPhone applications to be similarly ported over to Mac apps. It appears that Apple is starting with only support for iPad apps as these offer a more natural transition to the Mac, as compared to the iPhone apps which will be a bit more challenging due to designing for not only different user interfaces but also entirely different screen sizes. In short, apps designed exclusively for the iPhone aren’t going to automatically translate to a larger Mac screen, so both Apple’s Marzipan SDK and its developer guidelines will need to address these challenges, likely in much the same way as developers learned to properly extend iPhone apps onto the larger iPad screen.
According to the report, Apple’s ultimate goal by 2021 is to be able to have developers release a “single binary” — or a universal app — that will run on all iOS and macOS platforms, ultimately combining the iOS App Store and Mac App Store into a single entity.
Bloomberg’s sources, who of course asked not to be identified, noted that Apple’s plans are still “fluid” and the timeline could be altered. However, the report does line up with rumours that have been circulating since late 2017, not to mention Apple’s own attempts at Marzipan apps in macOS Mojave — Home, News, Stocks and Voice Memos — which clearly came from iOS, and arguably felt too much like iOS apps and out of place on macOS.
In fact, many criticized Apple’s efforts to bring these iOS apps over to macOS in Mojave, fearing that this would result in the “watering down” of macOS. However, with Apple rolling our Marzipan in stages, the Mojave apps should be seen more as an indication of the company trying out an early version of the SDK, rather than any indication of what it will ultimately look like. Early iPad apps that grew out of smaller iPhone versions were met with similar skepticism, although at least in that case Apple itself did a good job of ensuring that most of its own core apps showcased the tablet’s better UI potential right out of the gate.
It’s also important to note that, unlike Microsoft, Tim Cook has made it quite clear that Apple does not plan to merge the Mac and iPad into a single entity. At least year’s education event, Cook stated that both platforms are “incredible” because they do different things very well, and that Apple doesn’t want to have to deal with the tradeoffs and compromises that would be involved in beginning to merge the two. There are rumours, however, that Apple is planning to move to ARM-based processors for its Macs; such a move would make a “single binary” solution even more viable, although it seems likely that it would be a few years before Apple could phase out Intel binaries entirely.
Ultimately, Marzipan is an attempt to unify application development for both platforms while ensuring that they remain distinct, and it’s easy to see the benefit from this in an era when the Mac is beginning to not only get ignored, but outright snubbed by many developers. This is especially true in the case of web-based apps, where companies feel that simply using the app in a browser should suffice. For example, Twitter recently abandoned all development of its Mac app, and services like Facebook, Gmail, Google Calendar, and Netflix provide no desktop apps at all, despite their solid iOS versions. Although developers would still have to put some effort into user interface design for Mac apps, the ability to share the same underlying code base would hopefully spur them to make their iOS apps available to Mac users.
Apple’s plans to unify the App Store may also be advantageous to end users, who would be able to purchase a single app that could run on their iPad, iPhone, and Mac, rather than the current strategy of selling Mac apps separately. Of course, developers would likely still be free to create and sell separate versions of their apps for each platform, as some already do for the iPhone and iPad, but hopefully this would only be the case where one version offers significant advantages over the other.