At the end of 2010, John Gruber of Daring Fireball wrote in a Macworld column,
The central conceit of the iPad is that it’s a portable computer that does less—and because it does less, what it does do, it does better, more simply, and more elegantly. Apple can only begin phasing out the Mac if and when iOS expands to allow us to do everything we can do on the Mac. It’s the heaviness of the Mac that allows iOS to remain light.
Back then he wrote that long-term (“say, ten years out”), iOS might replace macOS. But in 2020, Apple recommitted to the Mac: the Mac Pro, the return of good keyboards, and—the biggest move yet—a new CPU architecture designed in-house.
Since then, I’ve seen a chorus of pundits, both professional and armchair (hi), push two theories that are either at odds or entwined, depending on how you look at them:
- Surely, a dystopian iOS-like future of only sanctioned App Store purchases lies ahead for the Mac. (Let’s call this the “Hacker News bait” narrative.)
- Surely, the iPad is going to catch up or even surpass the Mac—it already does so many things so well, and it’s only held back from its potential by an OS with artificial limitations.
The Hacker News bait narrative is bullshit. But I’m not sure about that second, sunnier one, either. Apple has been demonstrating a consistent philosophy for over a decade:
- Macs are general purpose computers.
- iPads and iPhones are application consoles, analogous to game consoles.
These have been true from the beginning of each platform. Macs have always been general purpose computers, and iPhones and iPads have never been such.
There’s no intrinsic reason iOS devices had to be consoles; other smartphones like Windows Mobile and PalmOS phones weren’t. We all know that, but we forget that there’s also no intrinsic reason Macs had to be open. Not only was its direct antecedent the Xerox Star considerably more console-like, so was Jef Raskin’s original concept for the Macintosh, which evolved into the Canon Cat. Yes, if the Mac had been positioned as an appliance the way the Star and the Cat were, it would likely have joined them in obscurity—but we say that now with nearly four decades more “common wisdom” about computers. The Cat wasn’t the only early attempt at an application console; the 1990s saw the Sony eVilla and other “Internet appliances.” Those products didn’t fail because the concept was bad; they failed because the technology to support the concept just wasn’t there yet. A decade later, we had small, lightweight touch screens and widespread high-speed wireless data—and internet appliances became possible.
As long as this philosophy on Apple’s part holds—and there’s no evidence that it’s changing—macOS will never be locked down to the degree iOS is, i.e., unable to install non-App Store apps without jailbreaking. But the Venn diagram of “users likely to walk over such a drastic change to the Mac” and “users likely to spend boggling amounts of money on Apple hardware” is close to a perfect circle. Apple would have to not only make up the lost hardware revenue in App Store revenue but beat it. You need 30% of a hell of a lot of apps to make up for a single lost 16-inch MacBook Pro sale, let alone a Mac Pro. Even if it was just four or five percent of users—and I think that’s extremely optimistic—that’s millions of lost unit sales, and likely forgoing entire markets the Mac currently has a meaningful presence in. There’s just no business case for such a move. Beyond that, given all the radical changes Apple made to the Mac in 2020, it feels like that was the “now or never” moment. If M1 Macs and macOS Big Sur didn’t lock us into an App Store-only world, it’s pretty unlikely macOS Pismo Beach or whatever is going to.
But that brings us to the second point. Is this the year when the iPad does get to do everything, not just most things, the Mac does? Will we be able to run macOS apps on M1 iPad Pros the way we can run iOS apps on M1 Macs?
I do think Final Cut and Logic will come to the iPad eventually in some form. But so far, macOS has remained a general purpose OS, and iOS has remained a console OS—and I don’t think that’s changing soon. I just don’t. I’m doubtful that Apple has any interest in getting an Xcode-like iPadOS development going, and doubtful they plan to “open up” iOS any more than they must for technical, market, or regulatory reasons.
Yet on an infinite timescale, this dichotomy can’t hold. It may be a minority of people who truly can’t do their work on the iPad, as opposed to just kvetching that they can’t do it the same way as they do on a Mac or a PC. But that minority is there, and they matter. So the question is what happens to break it and when. I’m expecting iPadOS 15 to have some major UI changes, possibly even the first tiling window manager designed for humans. My pie-in-the-sky guess is that a new operating system replacing both macOS and iPadOS is already underway. Its foundations are Swift and SwiftUI, and macOS Big Sur and iPadOS 15 are early bits of scaffolding. The Mac gets lighter; iOS gets heavier. But they’re not meeting in the middle yet.