iOS apps on macOS: What Marzipan means for dev teams

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Matt Hamblen, Senior Editor and Technology Writer, Smart City Scout

At long last, at its annual WWDC conference in San Jose last week, Apple answered speculation that it might merge its major operating systems, iOS and macOS. Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, said people at WWDC each year ask him about that. In answer, he posted a humorous slide during the keynote with a big “NO.”

“No, of course not!” he then proclaimed—earning loud applause from the assembled crowd on June 4. “We love the Mac and macOS because it’s explicitly created for Mac hardware like the trackpad.”

Instead, he gave developers a sneak peek at a multiyear project, code-named Marzipan, that is coming in 2019 and intended to “easily convert your iOS apps to Mac.”

“We see a huge opportunity for Mac to tap into iOS ,” he added. “There are millions of iOS apps out there. We think some of them would be great on the Mac and Mac users would love to have them there.” He said the coming capability will require “very few code changes,” but revealed few details.

Here's what your software teams need to know about Project Marzipan, and more from Apple's WWDC 2018.

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Federighi's revelation came near the end of a wide-ranging keynote presentation that lasted 2 hours and 16 minutes and included talk about four operating system updates available to developers that are coming to the public later this year: macOS Mojave, iOS 12, watchOS 5, and Apple TV 4K. 

A host of smaller announcements could be potentially significant for business users and IT shops, including an upgrade to FaceTime to support 32 users simultaneously across all platforms (with voice–only on Apple Watch).

For its part, Mojave will natively run four apps that Apple has taken from the enormous iOS app universe: News, Stocks, Voice Memos, and Home. Mojave is technically version 10.14, the fifteenth major release of macOS for Mac desktops and laptops. It also features a new Dark Mode interface, expected to be a big hit with developers and designers.

After the keynote at WWDC, Apple also revealed that Mojave will be the last macOS to support 32-bit apps, making developers create exclusively 64-bit apps and other software, which Apple has been supporting since 2007. 

What iOS apps developers will decide to put on macOS is anybody’s guess this early in the game. But game developers and gamers will surely be the biggest winners. Some productivity apps for workers will likely emerge, especially for collaboration across the Apple platforms (such as making sure one social network works on both an iPhone and a Mac laptop). Federighi told Wired in an interview that Fortnite is a candidate for porting, adding that he could imagine websites such as IMDB, Yelp, and DirecTV having native Mac desktop apps.

Apple announced that it plans to use its UIKit frameworks developer tool to move iOS apps onto a Mac. UIKit is now used by developers mainly to handle user-interface elements for iPhones and iPads, while AppKit has been used for making MacOS software.

After Federighi’s keynote, some developers and analysts hailed Apple’s porting announcement, but others were skeptical of its value.

Can Marzipan automate porting iOS apps to macOS?

Nate Frechette, CTO and co-founder of mobile app development platform maker Dropsource, said: “Apple’s unveiling of … Project Marzipan is an important advancement for developers, who are now armed with tools to help automate mundane tasks and focus skills—and passion—on creating new apps and ultimately, new innovative digital experiences for both mobile and desktop.”

In contrast, Matthew David, senior manager of the Mobile Center of Excellence at Kimberly-Clark, questioned the overall value of Apple’s Marzipan move—at least for business uses.

“I see no benefit from having iOS apps running on macOS. The macOS ecosystem is mature.”
Matthew David

Google’s move to support Android apps on Chromebooks is a different story, David added, since Chromebooks are an “immature market.”

IT organizations are already embracing cross-platform software such as React.Native to build apps. As a result, “I see little impact on IT groups,” with the Apple Marzipan move, David added. He reasoned that “it is not hard” for a developer already to reuse most of the code created in an iOS app on macOS because both iOS and macOS can run Swift apps that are built on the same frameworks in Xcode.

“We live in a digital world, with expanding digital experiences on desktops, mobile, tablet, wearables, voice, AR, and VR. The modern IT team must be adept in moving solutions from one platform to another, one form factor to another, and one cloud service to another," David said.

He further questioned whether Apple would actually have Marzipan ready in 2019, since it has fallen behind on prior promises. “It could come as late as Dec. 31, 2019, or not at all,” he said.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done for iOS UIKit to run on macOS. Also, the biggest challenge [for Apple] is that many enterprises do not support Macs.”
—Matthew David

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Is Marzipan about Apple keeping Mac viable?

Some observers believe Marzipan is chiefly intended to ensure that Mac desktops and laptops remain a significant player in the global market.

The global installed base of Mac desktops and laptops is estimated at no more than 20% in workplace settings, and several analysts called that a generous estimate. More importantly, Macs shipped into commercial settings (including government) constituted only 5% of total of laptops, desktops, and workstations shipped globally to such customers for the past three years, said Linn Huang, an analyst at IDC.

In 2016, Macs faced a “pretty disastrous year” for Apple, with shipments dropping by 9% after years of relatively stable growth, Huang said in an interview. That 2016 downturn could be the biggest impetus for Apple to push the new Marzipan concept as a means to bolster MacBook sales, he reasoned.

Huang agreed with David and others that enterprises are not heavily demanding more macOS laptops, desktops, and workstations, even though there are plenty of workers in graphics and marketing settings who love the computers. Meanwhile, iOS on smartphones and tablets is increasingly popular among workers, even though many then have to switch operating systems to Windows when using their laptops and desktops.

“Marzipan sets up Apple for a future in which the average corporate user will have different devices for different settings and be connected and productive at anytime. All the vendors are headed in the same direction, with an integrated approach.”
Linn Huang

Integrated form factors across the board

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research, said Microsoft, Apple, and Google are all working to make it easy for the user to switch from device to device.

"It’s long past being a differentiator and now is an expected capability. Easy porting of iOS apps to the Mac is a nice-to-have for the Mac."
Ezra Gottheil

Kevin Burden, an analyst at 451 Research, said he believes the portability move is about stirring up broader interest in macOS.

“Apple will never concede the desktop or laptop to Windows, but Apple does need to get developers to put more attention there, and they can’t do that with the two separate operating systems.”
Kevin Burden

Analysts and IT leaders agreed that WWDC offered few innovations that matter to business users or enterprise IT shops and their developers. The FaceTime upgrade announcement to allow 32 users to collaborate at once across Apple devices might sound valuable, but it assumes that all members of a work group use at least one Apple device, and there are already plenty of video collaboration tools that work across Windows, Mac, and other platforms, they said.

Apple also expanded the capability of CarPlay to support other mapping services than Apple Maps, including Waze and Google Maps, which could be valuable for field service vans, Burden noted. In doing so, some said Apple was admitting its Maps service is not top-notch.

As for other potential workplace innovations, Gottheil and others picked up on a new walkie-talkie feature in watchOS 5 that relies on both Wi-Fi and cellular to allow two Watch users to quickly transmit audio clips.

“A walkie-talkie feature in Watch might be valuable for field force workers, “ said IDC analyst John Johnson. What Nextel and Motorola offered years ago with point-to-point on smartphones could see a renaissance in Apple smartwatches. “If I could get my wife to wear an Apple Watch, that walkie-talkie ability would eliminate intra-house phone calls,” Gottheil quipped.

Image: Flickr