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When Apple delivered a final version of Project Catalyst — its solution for porting iPad apps over to the macOS platform — in macOS Catalina last year, we also heard some reports that Apple would use the new cross-platform technology to revamp the macOS Messages app to bring it into feature parity with the iPad version, but other than a bit of code discovered in early releases, that never actually came to fruition in macOS Catalina, and the whole idea kind of faded into the background.
Like many things that sometimes show up a bit early under the hood, however, it looks like the a new macOS Messages app is still in Apple’s playbook, with new code found in the leaked early iOS 14 development build that’s been making the rounds once again pointing to a Catalyst version of the Messages app.
The finding was made by 9to5Mac, which has been digging into the iOS 14 code for a few weeks now, and while they don’t have too much to offer in the way of details, they suggest that it could make an appearance as soon as next month when this year’s major macOS release is previewed at WWDC 2020 for developers.
Messages on the Mac
Apple’s Messages app on the Mac grew out of the company’s venerable iChat app shortly after it debuted iMessage back in 2011 as the world gradually shifted from desktop instant messaging tools to mobile texting.
However, while Messages on the Mac originally offered the same features as its iPhone and iPad counterparts, it gradually got left behind, becoming a second-class citizen over the years as new features were added to Messages on the iPhone and iPad, including things like stickers, extensions, handwriting, and message effects, to name a few. The Mac version of Messages received an update in High Sierra back in 2016 to at least recognize the new iOS 10 Messages features, as well as making and displaying “tapback” reactions, but it still lacked all of the other cool stuff that Apple added to Messages on the iPhone and iPad.
So far, Apple’s Project Catalyst hasn’t resulted in a wholesale transition of its iOS apps over to macOS; only News, Home, Stocks, and Voice Memos have made the trip, and these were apps that weren’t previously available on macOS in the first place, and the quality of these four hasn’t exactly inspired confidence. However, Apple blamed this on bad design decisions by its internal development team, rather than it being a reflection of Catalyst itself.
Despite this, however, when Apple broke up iTunes last year, it didn’t used Catalyst for the replacement apps as many had expected (and some had feared), and in fact the new Music app was basically still iTunes, just with the non-music parts stripped out into other apps.
However, the Music, TV, and Podcasts apps on macOS needed to have a lot more functionality than their iOS counterparts — the new Music app can still import and burn CDs, in fact. By comparison, Messages is an anemic cousin to its much richer iPhone and iPad counterparts, and as it has continued to fall further and further behind, it’s probably going to be much easier to simply use Catalyst to bring it over more directly, rather than trying to write new code to add these features to the current Mac version.
What This Means
While Apple bringing over the iPad version of Messages using Catalyst should enable almost all of the same features, there could still be a few that don’t make the transition due to platform limitations. Core features like effects, stickers, and memoji will undoubtedly be supported, whereas others like handwriting may not. Messaging app extensions may be a whole different ballgame as well, since even if Apple supports these features in the macOS version of Messages, developers will still have to build (or port) the apps to support them.
However, as far behind as the macOS Messages app is in supporting the “fun” features of messaging, it’s important to keep in mind that the Mac version does offer a few unique capabilities of its own that could be lost in the transition. In fact, Daring Fireball’s John Gruber started a Twitter thread exploring exactly what features might not make the cut.
This includes slightly more esoteric things like AppleScript support, which would almost be guaranteed to be removed (although it could be replaced by a macOS version of Apple’s Shortcuts framework), but also multi-window support, screen sharing, remote support for assisting friends and relatives, as well as saved file-based transcripts of conversations.
Of course, there’s nothing to say that using Catalyst means that Messages can’t have features added back in as part of the process of moving it to the Mac, but some of these capabilities in the native Mac Messages app are legacy features that have been hanging around since the days when it was iChat, so it’s entirely possible that Apple may not consider many of them important enough to take the trouble of re-adding to the new Catalyst-ported version of Messages.
[The information provided in this article has NOT been confirmed by Apple and may be speculation. Provided details may not be factual. Take all rumors, tech or otherwise, with a grain of salt.]