Next Week on My Mac: WWDC 2019

Tomorrow I expect that many of us will be glued to the opening keynote of Apple’s WWDC, at which senior staff and selected engineers will tell us what lies ahead in macOS 10.15 and the future of the platform, maybe mentioning certain other products too. As ever, the devil will be in the detail, and we’ll have to look beyond the carefully phrased and manicured headlines at later individual presentations to start understanding what’s really happening.

However Apple might rejig its user-facing media players, the heart of macOS is set to undergo major changes which have effectively been pre-announced for once.

Almost certain is the loss of support for 32-bit software, and with it the death of traditional 32-bit QuickTime and its old Codecs. Given how long Macs have been 64-bit clean (I make it around ten years now), this is hardly a rushed change, but the loss of QuickTime is a sad moment for Apple. In its heyday, it was a dominant player in the media market and used more on PCs than on Macs, but the move to independent cross-platform standards has made it increasingly irrelevant.

Ending 32-bit support should bring performance and other improvements to macOS, but the most obvious question is why now? This only makes sense when you consider where our pure 64-bit Macs are heading.

Mac hardware has returned to marking time. This year’s new models have shown minimal engineering effort: improved iMacs and MacBook Pros, but no glimmer of real change or innovation, and they were announced in passing, as if Apple was almost embarrassed to mention them, avoiding its customary pizzazz. And we still have the stop-gap iMac Pro covering for the long-absent Mac Pro replacement.

One feasible explanation is that these models – iMac, MacBook Pro and Mac Pro – will be the first to be based on Apple’s future hardware architecture, almost certainly featuring its in-house ARM-based CPUs. For those to be released in 2020, Apple needs to seed developers with mature prototypes this summer, just as it did when it switched from PowerPC to Intel processors.

If that doesn’t happen at this year’s WWDC, the whole timetable slides a year to the right, which would leave its flagship models in limbo for another eighteen months, not released to users until early 2021. If there are any more flaws found in Intel processors in the meantime, that future would be bleak.

Also pre-announced for macOS 10.15 is the enforcement of notarization on apps delivered from the Internet but not through the App Store. Apple has rushed ahead a bit prematurely with short-notice changes towards this in 10.14.5, but here the most important questions are not going to be about what happens when these apps are first run, but all the improvements promised at last year’s WWDC for apps with hardened runtimes, and their effect on the new tranche of notarized apps. If notarization only brings another complication to first run, then its security benefits must be in question.

We should also expect WWDC to reveal a lot of other detail about macOS 10.15. I haven’t mentioned Marzipan yet: it’s a reliable headline-grabber, but a project which Apple mustn’t let override solid engineering investment in macOS. Good macOS apps inevitably need much more than Marzipan can ever provide, and if developers don’t recognise that, their products will fall flat.

For many third-party developers, Marzipan could in any case prove a poor investment. If you’re already tied into marketing and delivery through the iOS App Store, even if Apple allows Marzipan apps to be sold independently (by no means guaranteed), you’re not geared up to go it alone on macOS. When a successful iOS developer discovers that making much money from macOS apps is quite a different proposition, they may have to raise their macOS pricing well above that for iOS, which will in turn raise user expectations. But I’m sure that Apple will happily benefit from its share of any sales.

Let’s say for the sake of example that a thousand developers each ship a Marzipan product in the Mac App Store, with total sales of $1 million. That’s an average return per developer of a meagre $700, and a total revenue to Apple of $300,000. No wonder Apple seems so happy to invest in Marzipan’s development.

One area which appears to have stagnated after a promising start in macOS 10.14 is its linguistics support. After Mojave’s initial burst of enthusiasm for different languages, mostly those with existing large corpora available, it seems to have run out of steam, omitting Chinese, Japanese and Korean, most notably. If this doesn’t change in 10.15, I fear that these exciting features must be presumed dead in the water.

Some developers have come to fear or hate WWDC, but it remains of great importance to users and developers alike: for too much of macOS, it’s the closest that we get to documentation. Did I mention that Apple most importantly still needs to focus effort on documentation? Now that would really be an impressive announcement, something I think I said last year too.