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Although Apple’s Project Catalyst promises to close the gap between iPad and Mac apps, it may be a while before end users actually see the fruits of Apple’s new app unification, with many developers struggling to figure out how to best make the jump between platforms.
Despite the fact that Catalyst will essentially go live this fall with the release of macOS Catalina, according to AppleInsider you likely won’t see your favourite iPad apps make it over to the Mac anytime soon; not only are you unlikely to see any arrive alongside Catalina — other than Apple’s own, of course — but they probably won’t even surface this year at all.
Of course, Apple has clearly said that Project Catalyst is a multi-year undertaking, and although Apple has had at least a year to put its own apps through the process, developers have only been playing with the service for two or three months, and according to AppleInsider there are more developers complaining about it than there are praising it.
The Magic of Catalyst
The goal of Catalyst is to allow developers to easily “port” apps that have been built for the iPad to allow them to run on the Mac without having to rewrite significant chunks of code.
In practical terms, this takes the form of an extra option in Apple’s Xcode development environment that automatically generates a fully functional macOS app in parallel with an iPad app.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the iPad app in question is ideally optimized for running on the Mac — merely that it’s capable of doing so, and Apple’s own Home, News, Stocks, and Voice Memos apps released with macOS Mojave last year provide very good examples of how simply doing a direct port isn’t really the best idea.
The Challenges of Catalyst
Every developer who AppleInsider spoke with “has seriously looked at Catalyst” but many have no use for it at all because they already develop separate iPad and Mac apps. Some developers on the iPad side, however, have said that they hadn’t previously considered making a Mac version of their apps until Catalyst came along.
However, any serious developer who is considering bringing their iPad app over to the Mac realizes that Catalyst is just a starting point. While it will handle all of the more mundane work of porting an app across platforms, developers will still need to focus on building a user experience that works well and feels at home on the Mac.
That check the box thing solves the barrier to entry in a really powerful way, and there are apps that might just do that. But for us, we want to craft the perfect Timepage or Actions experience on the desktop. We’ve got to say, okay, what are some Mac philosophies that we want to adhere to?Jake Underwood, Moleskine Digital Studio
The Marzipan Four
Apple’s own set of iPad apps — Home, News, Stocks, and Voice Memos — which were ported last year in macOS Mojave under Catalyst’s predecessor, Project Marzipan have also been discouraging to many developers, leaving them with the sense that if Apple can’t get it right with its own apps, and all of the engineering resources it presumably has available, then there’s little hope for others who aren’t nearly as familiar with the platforms.
It also hasn’t helped that although Apple admitted that these apps weren’t up to its standards, blaming the originals on bad design decisions, the company’s promise to improve them in the first Catalina public beta never actually materialized.
Despite that public pronouncement, the apps have not seen major changes since the first Catalina beta, and seem on track to ship in a less-than-excellent state for another year. If Apple can’t make really great Mac apps using Catalyst, what hope do third-party developers have?Andrew Marsden, iOS developer
There are also still inconsistencies between the macOS and iOS platforms that will affect the portability of certain apps. For example, although Apple does have its own Home app available for the Mac, the actual HomeKit framework is not available there for third-party developers to use, which limits the ability for them to port iPad HomeKIt apps over to the Mac .That same is also true for many other frameworks such as HealthKit, SiriKit, and ARKit.
A Weak Link
There’s also the fear that Catalyst might make things too easy for developers who aren’t as meticulous about building great Mac experiences. The result is that there will likely be many more “simple” apps coming to the Mac, along with “bad ports of bad iOS apps.”
Catalyst is not designed to make good Mac apps. It’s designed to extend the reach of iOS apps to Mac users.Matthias Hochgatterer, developer of Home 3
Catalyst is also “quite buggy” and “horribly under-documented” according to Peter Steinberger, CEO and Founder of PSPDFKit, meaning that developers don’t even know what to do when they hit odd behaviours
That said, developers who know what they’re doing and care about creating great Mac apps will still be able to add in some Mac-specific programming, using the macOS AppKit frameworks, creating a sort of hybrid iPad/Mac app that will likely feel much more at home on Apple’s desktop operating system. While this requires more effort than the magical “one button solution” that Catalyst promises, the new system still takes a lot of work out of getting past the starting line and into the more advanced fit and finish.