Marzipan and the Mac

6 September 2018

One of the most essential criteria for the long-term survival and adoption of an operating system is the capacity to grow and change. This is especially true in today’s market landscape, where multiple platforms are perpetually competing with one another and vying for users’ attention. Software is like hardware: if yours doesn’t change, someone else’s will.

Companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google — the big three operating system makers of 2018 — release regular updates to their software. Overall, they do this for two main reasons: first, to keep their hold on a dedicated user base; and second, to draw in new users both from other platforms and as first-time buyers. The competition is what keeps an operating system alive.

This article is about Marzipan, Apple’s next step in growing its computing platform and making it more appealing. But in order to understand and talk about this project better, it’s important to determine the motivation behind it. And to do that, we need to take a brief look outside the world of Apple software and to the competition.

Windows and Chrome OS are the Mac’s main competitors. Combined, the two make up a vast percentage of the overall computer market. Each of these operating systems gives its users a wide variety of applications: Chrome OS can run any Android app, and Windows is generally very widely supported. This large selection of apps is often seen as a major strength of each operating system.

To state Apple’s alleged problem as clearly as possible: macOS doesn’t have enough apps.

Uluroo disagrees with the idea that this is even an issue. The Mac has plenty of good apps; it makes up for quantity in quality. But we can talk about that later.

Apple’s oldest and most robust platform is very well-developed and continues to improve. However, it has some long-standing criticisms that have been repeated over the years. One of the major ones is the application selection. macOS — particularly Apple’s App Store — just doesn’t have many apps, at least compared to Chrome OS and Windows.

As ever, the competition is keeping macOS alive. Apple recently set out to remedy its app problem, and the fruit of its efforts thus far can be seen in macOS Mojave. There are three important things to discuss here: the reason behind the project and the two major shifts it entails.

The reason the low app selection is an issue was touched on before. Apple, like any company that owns a software platform, wants to make macOS more appealing to people who currently own Windows and Chrome OS computers. If Apple can say to Windows users, “Hey, we have a better user experience and better security and a good app selection,” that could be enough to convince people to switch. It’s one less thing that’s “wrong” with macOS.

Essentially, the motivation behind Mojave’s changes is the competition. To put it simply, Apple wants to “catch up”; it wants to revitalize the Mac's app ecosystem.

Apple knows the problem: not enough apps. The obvious solution: get more apps. And in order to do that, Apple wants to incentivize development on the Mac App Store, not just on the Mac in general. It has to make developers willing to pay it a 30% revenue cut.

Apple’s strategy turns out to fit into the perspective of the classic cost-benefit analysis. Apple wants to do two things: first, increase the benefits of developing on the Mac App Store; and second, decrease the effort — the “cost” — it takes developers to do so.

First, let’s talk about the benefit, which is increased discoverability. The Mac App Store in macOS Mojave has received a beautiful redesign akin to the App Store in iOS 11, making it far easier for casual shoppers to see the apps that are available. This is a big one for developers: now, the Mac App Store is a major publishing outlet, and they can get their apps noticed.

Uluroo thinks this is a great idea. macOS High Sierra’s App Store was archaic. It looked terrible. If Uluroo were an app developer, he wouldn’t want to put his apps there. But this redesign looks very nice.

So, the first answer to the problem: discoverability. Your apps take center stage; Apple puts your work in the spotlight. Uluroo likes it.

All that brings us at last to the main point of this article and the major part of Apple’s Save-the-Mac-App-Store project: Marzipan.

Marzipan is the codename of Apple’s big party trick, the way to decrease the cost of Mac development, the way it wants to direct to the Mac a huge influx of apps. And the premise is rather simple. In fact, it’s too simple.

Marzipan is an easy way for developers to turn an iOS app into a Mac app. To demonstrate said party trick, Apple has included with macOS Mojave four of its own iOS apps, which it has magically turned into Mac apps: News, Stocks, Home, and Voice Memos.

To state the issue very succinctly: these are not Mac apps.

They aren’t refined, tailored, designed to work on a Mac. They’re designed to work on an iPhone or iPad — and the Mac is not just a bigger iOS device. Apple’s worst miscalculation with Marzipan was thinking it could get away with pretending the Mac is a supersized iPad.

Uluroo is actually not saying that Marzipan should not have happened. He’s just saying that Marzipan is merely a starting point. It is not enough to make a good Mac app. Had Apple introduced these ported apps at WWDC 2018, pointed out the issues that abounded with them, and then revealed versions of the apps that were designed for the Mac and blew the ported ones out of the water, there would have been a thunderous applause. Apple would have proven that Mac apps are better when they’re made for the Mac first and exclusively.

Of course, that’s not what happened.

What Apple did with the new apps in Mojave was the bare minimum amount of work necessary to make the apps function on a Mac — and the apps are still iOS apps. They are not Mac apps, nor do they try to be. Uluroo doesn’t think this means Apple doesn’t care about the Mac, as some would say, but he thinks it means that Apple didn’t know how to revitalize the Mac the way it should. The execution, not the motivation, is the problem.

Uluroo doesn’t want to list every user interface issue to be found in the apps, but here are the major ones:

• News has no easy way to go back to the previous page. Unlike Safari, it offers no trackpad gesture for that purpose. This is in stark contrast to iOS’s News app, where you can swipe from the left edge of the display to go back.

• Everything still looks like you’re supposed to touch it. The layout of stories in News and Stocks, the way you have to pull to refresh… it’s all wrong. It’s not designed for a mouse and keyboard.

• Just use one of the apps. Nothing behaves the way you’d expect. It all feels half-baked.

Again, these are just iOS apps that you control with a mouse rather than a finger. Of course, there’s some value in having any version of News and Stocks and whatnot on iOS, but “some value” should not be regarded as good enough. Apple should be aiming for excellency, and instead it’s gone for ease of development rather than ease of use.

It’s an uncharacteristically user-hostile software decision compared to Apple’s legendary focus on the user experience, though it doesn’t mean that Marzipan should be abandoned. What it means is that developers need to put more love into a Mac app than Apple might expect. They can’t just snap their fingers; they need to design a unique interface for the Mac. A blown-up iOS app is, bluntly put, bad.

This tool could be a useful way to move a code base from one OS to another, but the user interface cannot be a duplicate of an iOS app interface. The lesson developers — and Apple — should take away from this is that Marzipan is the first step. If you have an iOS app, by all means, port it, but then you’d better do a darn good job refining it so it has a Mac interface.

Regardless of whether Marzipan will increase the number of available Mac apps, Apple should be more willing to tell developers to suck up and program a good Mac app than to cave in and let them port terrible ones over. If Apple’s own Marzipan apps are any indication, developers had better put good work in. They shouldn’t stop with Marzipan.

The Mac App Store shouldn’t be about quantity, it should be about quality. Uluroo, and hopefully users in general, would prefer just a few great apps over many terrible apps. Apple should prefer that too.