The independent student newspaper of Goucher College

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Marquis Kurt

Marquis Kurt has 2 articles published.

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Howdy! 👋 I'm Marquis Kurt. I'm a software developer and the digital news coordinator at The Quindecim.

Is There Trouble at the Catalina Coast? A Take on the new macOS

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macOS Catalina on a MacBook Pro. Apple.

In June of 2019, Apple hosted their annual conference, the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), to discuss and reveal the updates coming to all of their products this fall. Among these update announcements, Apple announced the next major iteration of their desktop operating system on Mac computers, macOS. This fifteenth major update, macOS Catalina, brings many improvements and changes to the platform such as an automatic dark mode and the removal of iTunes in favor of separate Music, Podcasts, and TV apps. This update arrived to the public in October, and reception of this update has been mixed. While this new update brings better security and refinements to what Mojave, the previous update, brought, a lot has been changed to where some older apps won’t work anymore and where developers have to jump through hoops to keep their software running on macOS. However, I don’t think this necessarily warrants throwing this release into the trash and rioting against Apple. Despite dropping support for 32bit software, requiring notarization on all apps, apps ported to the Mac from iOS being a mixed bag, and overall instabilities with the platform, after testing the update since June, macOS Catalina is still a great improvement and shouldn’t be held to the bad reputation it has received.

Goodbye, 32bit

One of the major changes Apple announced with this release of macOS is the removal of 32bit support in favor of 64bit. Computers with 64bit processors and software are more capable of doing things compared to computers with 32bit processors; most modern computers and platforms are already 64bit. Apple announced their first 64bit version of macOS back in 2009 with OS X Snow Leopard. However, there are some old apps and games written for the older 32bit such as Office 2011 and Portal 2. You wouldn’t be able to run these under macOS Catalina; you’d have to buy new software or hope that the developer releases an update to the software.

While it is a shame to see 32bit apps no longer work on macOS, it makes sense to keep going forward with 64bit. Apple can continue working on making refinements and updates to macOS and make the installation size smaller. A lot of apps have been written for 64bit and are already taking advantage of what it has to offer. While 32bit has been around for a while, it’s too old to keep supporting in this day and age. As Rene Ritchie from the Vector podcast states in his macOS Catalina review, “more than a decade of writing-on-the-wall later, 32-bit apps deserve to die.”

Malware-Free, Notarized Apps

Last year with macOS Mojave, Apple introduced a new process called notarization to ensure that apps don’t contain malware in them by letting developers send their app to Apple to be checked by an automated system. According to Apple at their presentation about notarization at this year’s WWDC, notarization became widely adopted since its introduction and most apps get notarized within 15 minutes from their upload time. Now, starting with macOS Catalina, Apple is making notarization a requirement for all future apps built after June 1, 2019. Since this announcement, the company’s received flak from the developer community since these apps need to be signed before they can be notarized, meaning that developers have to pay Apple $99 yearly to get access through its developer program. Additionally, for developers that are enrolled in the developer program, they might run into more issues if they aren’t using Apple’s development tool Xcode, getting the app notarized can be tricky. On top of that, notarization becomes impossible if Apple’s notarization servers are down, putting app updates in limbo. While Apple, as of September, has relaxed the notarization requirements until January 2020, the existing issues remain.

Some developers see this move to required notarization as a tactic Apple is using to tighten macOS and force sales through the Mac App Store, though this doesn’t really make sense, especially for a desktop operating system where the platform is open in the sense that its users can download apps from anywhere and run them without going to an arbitrary software center. Although the notarization process can get annoying and add additional steps to releasing apps for macOS without going through the Mac App Store, I don’t necessarily see notarization in a bad light. Notarization lets users know that the software they’re downloading is secured by the developer and won’t completely wreck their system. It is true that notarization has its flaws: the servers were unresponsive the past few days, so apps like Hyperspace and Slack couldn’t notarize their latest update, and developers still have to pay Apple to get this notarization. However, I’m sure these flaws will be ironed out as notarization works to become the standard process. Even then, apps that aren’t notarized will still run; you’ll just need to take an extra step to open it the first time.

A Volatile Catalyst

The Twitter app on iPad and macOS Catalina

macOS Catalina also brings some new technologies that make it possible to port apps from iOS to the Mac with Xcode. This technology, now called Mac Catalyst, has existed and been tested for a while; the News, Stocks, Voice Memos, and Home apps from macOS Mojave use Mac Catalyst. While Catalyst seems to open doors in terms of more apps coming to the Mac from iOS, it isn’t without its issues. Developers have found that they needed to tweak their app a lot more. James Thompson, developer of the iOS calculator app PCalc, describes his process and frustration about porting the app Dice to the Mac using Catalyst on his blog:

“Once you get past that first check box, and want to build out Mac-specific features like menus, the APIs start to feel rougher and unfinished. […] I am hopeful that this is just a 1.0 […] and things will continue to improve. It’s a great foundation, but there’s still a way to go before I could use it for PCalc”.

Developer frustration aside, the quality of the current selection of apps ported from iOS on the Mac App Store is mixed. While Twitter seems to perform fine, it definitely doesn’t feel as in-place as other Mac apps. Atlassian’s issue tracker software Jira Cloud feels more integrated, but the performance is not the best and seems to hang when performing simple tasks like undoing an issue update from the clipboard. Yet Apple’s own apps like News, Podcasts, and Voice Memos perform just about as well as you can expect. In addition to this, both Jira and Twitter have different interface designs on Apple’s developer website than what is currently being distributed, indicating that the technology might not give them the ability to design their apps as advertised or Mac Catalyst overall seems half-baked, and we can only hope that this will improve over time.

In Defense of macOS Catalina

Despite the quirks of macOS Catalina regarding the removal of 32bit support, required notarization, and the mess that is Mac Catalyst, this update remains a solid release. The new auto dark mode feature is decent, and the new apps replacing iTunes feel great for regular use. The new accessibility features also complement macOS nicely, letting anyone control their Mac with their voice. As always, macOS updates also contain many bug fixes and security patches to improve performance, reliability, and security.

In conclusion

Overall, it definitely seems that the downsides of macOS Catalina have been blown out of proportion. 32bit-support is gone, but we’ve been in an era of 64bit computing for a while now. We’re entering an era of more security and assurance of software quality through notarization, even if there’s some costs associated with it. Though Catalyst is more of an experiment right now than anything, it’s paving the future of truly cross-platform apps that adapt to different computing models. While the first release of Catalina hasn’t been what everyone was expecting, we can only get better from here and refine it until Apple surprises us again with the next macOS.

Gophers and Elephants: A Mastodon-supported Goucher Community?

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Photo Credit: NewDinasours.com

Social networking is a natural and important part of the Goucher community and culture. Goucher reaches out to students, faculty, and family members through traditional networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Students, faculty, and staff have access to the GopherApp for iOS and Android to post information, exchange messages, and get feedback. Goucher clearly intends to make use of social technologies to further connect with people with little to no obstruction. However, traditional networks’ own political agenda can interfere with Goucher’s plans in posting their own content, as centralized networks and their parent companies own users’ data. While the GopherApp relinquishes control of their data, the app also comes with its own issues and doesn’t completely solve the problem.

In my sophomore year of high school, I researched the disadvantages of using Instagram to share photos from a legal perspective and a photographer’s perspective. I discovered that Instagram’s data is centralized –– Instagram takes away the rights to my photos. Data centralization can prove detrimental to institutions that own photos or videos, as they are forced to relinquish this data to another company. In an interview with April Glaser and Will Oremus for Slate magazine, Eugen Rochko, the developer behind a social network called Mastodon, makes the issues with centralization very clear: “Centralization is not just centralization of power, but […] data as well […] the more data a platform like Facebook collects—it’s all in one place. It’s easy to access and to analyze.” Despite having some advantages in content control and review, data centralization shifts the controls from the user to the company.

In an attempt to restore control to users, Rockho is working on a new network called Mastodon. It’s a decentralized social network that makes up for the disadvantages of centralized social networks. In the aforementioned interview, he also mentions how Mastodon works in this regard: “With Mastodon, the data is separated. Every server stores only the data of its local signed-up users and the data that they subscribe to from their friends.” Eugen doesn’t own all of Mastodon; rather, he just owns his particular server (aka an ‘instance’). These instances talk to each other to make a network rather than being hosted in one place: this is known as federation. You can think of it like the federation in the Star Trek series: there are many planets and species, but they all come together to form a single federation without being a giant entity.

Adopting Mastodon would give Goucher an opportunity to host its own instance that interacts with others. However, Mastodon’s federation can also lead to access to unwanted servers that could potentially be harmful for the Goucher community or that can violate laws. Thankfully, Rochko has also thought of this. In the same interview, he states that owners of an instance can block other instances from the timeline, images, or the whole instance altogether. Although some consider this as censorship of Mastodon data, this also provides Goucher with the ability to allow students to interact with other Mastodon users from other instances.

Decentralized social networks like Mastodon have an advantage on interoperability. Many developers have been making networks that can work with others; examples include Instagram-alternative PixelFed and YouTube-alternative PeerTube. The interoperability between said networks is possible because of an underlying technology: ActivityPub. ActivityPub works a lot like email and allows cross-network interaction. As such, any services that use ActivityPub can interact with other instances. If Goucher hosts Mastodon, PixelFed, and PeerTube, for example, they can make these services interact with each other quite easily while allowing public access. In contrast, using traditional networks require a third-party cross-posting service like HootSuite or If This Then That (IFTTT) to work between social networks.

Alas, as with any social network, a concern for privacy arises. Naturally, we believe that social networks force us to think before we post. Professor Judith Donath from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society describes this behavior in her book, The Social Machine: “[…] people are free to act as they will, and there is little social pressure on them to conform. Privacy supports diversity; where people have protected private space, they have the freedom to be different from the public mainstream ideal” (Donath 304). This rings true for any social network, including Mastodon. It is also true that, because of this, we tend to think more about what we post. In the Psychnology Journal, Florencio Cabello, Marta Franco, and Alex Haché in 2013 discusses the restriction: “The uncertainty about what we post online also involves serious consequences for fundamental freedoms such as free speech and the right to information” (Cabello, Franco, and Hache 49). Thankfully, Rochko considered this idea; in Mastodon, users can change the visibility level of their content so that it can be targeted towards a certain audience or to the public. Goucher can make use of this to send content on Mastodon only to its users or to the public. This ability to control who sees the content can come handy for sharing information about an upcoming club meeting privately but sharing the next Common Hour publicly.

However, you may be asking the question: “Don’t we already have something like this with the GopherApp?” We do have the GopherApp as a means of communicating with each other in a social way for posting information inside of Goucher. However, from a software developer’s and user’s standpoint, the GopherApp doesn’t necessarily have the same advantages as something like Mastodon. The GopherApp doesn’t have a network that can be accessed via a web client or desktop app; if anyone wants to view the latest updates in the GopherApp, he/she must open the app on his/her phone to do it. Another issue arises from the app: GopherApp users can’t post the same kind of content as one can via Mastodon. Mastodon makes use of sharing links, uploading videos and images, and emoji, as well as providing spoiler tags to censor content to a degree; the GopherApp lacks some of this functionality, forcing its users to view a specific type of content. Furthermore, some additional features, such as club page edits, require the developers to make changes upon request. Another way to look at the GopherApp versus Mastodon is this: Mastodon can do what the GopherApp does and then some. We can further modify the web version of the Mastodon client to include Goucher links and branding, if we really wanted to. Besides using the stock web client Mastodon provides, Goucher can take advantage of some of the other clients designed for Mastodon in mind; there are already a few decent mobile apps for Mastodon that anyone can use to connect with their own accounts, and the rise of desktop clients like Tootle, Pinafore, and my recently-developed Hyperspace make Mastodon really accessible.

Besides the technical and social advantages of using Mastodon, becoming a part of the bigger fediverse has its long-term advantages. In a blog post I wrote last year, “Why I believe the fediverse is the future,” I briefly state some of my previous arguments. However, I also make an important observation about how decentralized social networks can help sustain cultures: “It feels more likely that federated, decentralized social networks put the emphasis on fostering relationships rather than control and censorship of data, which, in turn, helps sustain cultures.” Because of my aforementioned arguments, Goucher, should it move to Mastodon, would retain the ability to focus on its community and culture rather than the concerns of censorship, globalization, and/or centralization.

News outlets are already making us aware of these issues, too. Many have published articles about Facebook’s recent privacy issues, including the scandal regarding their enterprise Facebook Research app that Apple pulled off their store. Examples include Recode in their article titled “Apple says it’s banning Facebook’s research app that collects users’ personal information,” CNN with “Apple says Facebook’s controversial market research app violated its policies,” and even The Verge with “The fallout from Facebook’s controversial research app.” Given these circumstances, it’s easy to see how some are making the migration over to Mastodon and the fediverse.

I’d like to make myself clear on my stance on use of networks like Mastodon at Goucher: I am not saying that we should completely abandon networks like Facebook, Twitter, etc. in favor of Mastodon. Most of the world still relies on those networks to connect with family and friends and will probably not migrate right away. Rather, I am proposing that we take a step in supporting an open community that isn’t entirely governed by a single company by hosting instances of Mastodon, PeerTube, PixelFed, etc. Though we cannot guarantee that everyone will migrate to this universe, or fediverse, in this case, we can at least show our support for projects like this. Mastodon currently has over a million users from different instances all over the globe, so it already has established itself in the social network space. However, it is up to us to decide whether we want to have social networks that work for us by us instead of the other way around.

BY MARQUIS KURT

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