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4 min read

macOS Big Sur and Apple's war against web apps

macOS Big Sur and Apple's war against web apps

At WWDC 2020, Apple announced a complete redesign of macOS, moving the version number from 10.15 to 11.0 with macOS Big Sur. As part of this massive OS update, they enhanced their existing Catalyst framework to bring iPadOS apps to macOS, and added ways to build Mac apps in Swift UI. They also announced Apple Silicon Macs will be able to run iOS apps by default, unless the developer decides to opt out.

Why is Apple continuing to push so many ways to bring apps to the Mac? For the longest time, many apps, especially in the productivity space, have used websites as a solution to reach Mac and Windows users. If my impressions from working in tech are true, I bet Apple is seeing user analytics where modern day office work for many tech-forward companies is a series of 20 web browser tabs, moving between the various SaaS options a company runs on.

Enter Electron

These SaaS companies will often build out companion iOS and Android apps with many parts written as native UI code for each platform. But when it comes time to make a Mac app, they'll use tools like Electron to essentially wrap their web experience into an app. This meets the requests of users who want native Mac features like notifications and a spot in the dock, but allows them to essentially duplicate the web experience, wrapping it in an "app". Oh, and did I mention that Electron also supports Microsoft Windows? As a result, you see a lot of companies shipping apps that run on Electron, or some similar web-based setup: Slack, Notion, Basecamp, Hey, Todoist, Trello, Teams, GitHub...the list goes on. Other apps simply say that their desktop experience is only on the website, like Gmail, Asana, Roam, and others.

In an effort to keep Electron from gaining too much traction, Apple has already banned many Electron apps from their Mac App Store. But this is also explained with additional reasons. Apps that rely so much on web pages are challenging for app review, as the user interface could be swapped out at any point, adding features after passing Apple's app review. More important for the user, UI loading from the web gives more vectors for a hacker to add unintended code to the user's copy of the app, compromising data and the machine.

Auto-running iOS apps on Mac...coming this fall!

In what I consider the most peculiar part of Mac app announcements at WWDC 2020, Macs with Apple Silicon will be able to install iOS apps...by DEFAULT. This will happen automatically, unless the developer goes to un-check a box and opt out. I imagine that Apple is hoping native iPad versions of these apps running on the Mac will be better than the websites, leading people to use the apps instead of the web. From there, I'm sure Apple would love to see companies realize this and invest more in their Mac apps. But there's no way most large companies Apple might be thinking of are going to leave that box checked. The web is one place they don't have to deal with Apple's app review process. Additionally, existing apps have users trained to use the website, or their existing Electron apps for Mac. Are those companies really going to want to push users from existing Electron apps to the Mac App Store? Apple might dangle featuring and market exposure in front of small to medium size businesses with iOS and web apps considering the jump to a native Mac app. It will be interesting to see who follows that encouragement.

Why should Apple do anything about Electron and web apps?

If the web browser is where the innovation is happening, then the Mac has a lot less advantage over the PC. Apple wants the experience of software on the Mac to be better and more intuitive than competitors' platforms. It also decreases user lock in. If a user is only using Chrome and a handful of Electron apps, there's limited friction to move to PC or a Chromebook. They won't have to say goodbye to too many apps on the Mac.

The future of Mac apps

All of us Mac and Apple fans can complain about the animations and interactions on web apps not feeling native until the cows come home. Unfortunately, the average user doesn't care, and average is enough to move the market. Even as a native app developer, this is true for me as well. I use many web apps on a daily basis because the functionality is very compelling, even if the user interface isn't. I'm writing this in Roam, and I check my email on Mac with the Gmail website. I also use a handful of web apps for work. If this trend continues across the industry, I might find myself working more and more with web UI as an app developer as well.

Apple is known to generate developer interest and creativity around their products that produce great apps. They really have a chance of influencing the next generation of SaaS companies. Between Catalyst, SwiftUI, and simply running iOS apps, hopefully Apple is giving new companies enough compelling reasons to avoid Electron and web UI for their Mac app. At the very least, it will be a different look and feel from said new company's existing competitors running in your browser.

Thinking outside the window

Regardless of the evolution of Mac app user interface, I think what Apple is doing with macOS Big Sur is fantastic. I love how they are making it easier to develop native Mac apps. In the end, it will probably be Apple's other large WWDC 2020 Mac announcement, moving to Apple Silicon, that keeps the Mac sought after more than PCs. Even when you are running a bunch of power hungry Chrome tabs, double the battery life is still compelling.