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

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.

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