Last Week on My Mac: Changing the future

How quickly the world changes. Just a month ago, few of us could have envisaged the explosive growth in the number of cases of coronavirus disease, resultant lockdowns and sweeping job losses.

Among those fortunate enough to be working from home (WFH) are many of the engineers in Apple who are responsible for maintaining macOS and for delivering the next major release, 10.16. Despite upheaval which must have bordered on chaos at times, they delivered macOS 10.15.4 and last week’s security updates according to schedule. I’m sure that you’ll join me in congratulating and thanking them for doing so.

Of course, much of their work on 10.15.4 had been completed well before all hell broke loose, just as a great deal of their work on macOS 10.16 must already be largely finished. That raises the question as to where Apple goes once Catalina’s cycle concludes this summer. It has already announced that WWDC will go ahead in early June, but will be streamed to the world rather than in front of a local audience.

For the great majority of developers, who simply can’t afford the time or cost of travelling to California to attend in person, this can only be an improvement. A select few will miss out on the chance to meet Apple’s engineers in the flesh, in lab sessions perhaps, and that’s a pity for both those who would have attended and those engineers.

What is still doubtful is whether there will be any purpose to WWDC this year. For Apple, it’s the annual opportunity to showcase the next major releases of macOS and its other operating systems, and to announce/release new hardware, particularly iPhones. Even for those who still have incomes which make such new products affordable, it’s moot as to whether Apple can or will be able to launch any major new hardware for many months. And some have called for macOS 10.16 to be postponed until the world has returned to something closer to normal.

Even for the world’s largest electronics company, knowing where it will be from June to September is currently impossible. Will there be the manufacturing capacity to build sufficient new iPhones? Will it be able to deliver them in sufficient quantity to customers? Will there even be sufficient customers to make product launches feasible?

Without new iPhones, a major new release of iOS looks unlikely. All those new features dependent on the latest hardware could be as unpredictable as mass immunisation against coronavirus. Without a major new release of iOS, whatever is in store with macOS 10.16 looks fairly futile too. It’s understandable that some are calling for Apple to postpone product releases, including macOS 10.16, until the pandemic has been conquered.

That would in turn cast great doubt on holding any streamed WWDC in June, and put the brakes on Apple’s hardware and software development. If WWDC were to be postponed until the autumn/fall, the 10.16 release cycle couldn’t start until then, with its first beta appearing, say, in September.

All this seems to have an inevitability about it, but I’m not sure that this would be wise for Apple’s many employees, and its engineers in particular. It could also send many third-party developers to the wall.

For Apple’s engineers, many of whom will already have been working on macOS 10.16 for a good year, and some even longer, that purpose would vanish into the long grass. If there’s one thing we all need during a long period of lockdown and WFH, it’s purpose. Without any real deadline on delivering a product whose very existence is in doubt, maintaining the momentum of development would become far more difficult. The suggestion that this period could be used to fix bugs in 10.15 makes sense, but would hardly do anything to maintain morale or purpose for engineers who have, until very recently, been working hell for leather to ship the first beta of 10.16, and to explain its new and changed features at WWDC.

Those features, and the new release of macOS itself, also starts the cycle for much third-party development, which in turn brings in fresh revenue for those who develop software and hardware for macOS. Already third-party developers such as the Omni Group have been shedding staff, and most small independent developers are suffering worst of all. Yet Apple hasn’t – as yet – exercised its powers to help sustain the industry which supports its own products. Simple measures, such as cutting back the percentage of sales which it collects in its lucrative App Stores, haven’t occurred. Yet without thriving third-party support, Apple’s own product sales are likely to suffer.

WWDC and other Apple events showcase some of the best third-party products. If many of those developers have shut up shop, gone broke waiting for sales, then Apple and macOS will forever be the poorer as a result.

There are no easy answers, and all are plagued by uncertainty. It’s only when you’ve got huge cash reserves that you stand any chance of changing the future. And that future depends heavily on the morale and purpose of your own employees, and countless dependent third-parties.