Last Week on My Mac: Looking for the killer app

In less than ten months, Apple Silicon Macs have gone from the Developer Transition Kit to a mature platform with four different models and a choice of three major operating systems running apps for anything from iOS to macOS. It’s only the wisdom of hindsight that helps us understand how Apple has unleashed its new architecture so quickly.

It was Catalina that brought the most obvious clues, which we all missed. Unburdening macOS of all the legacies of 32-bit support and its once-glorious QuickTime past came as a shock to many. The appearance of Catalyst seemed so pointless at the time: how many developers would really want to create cross-platform apps which would run on both Intel and ARM processors? It turns out that we all do when they’re both inside Macs.

Now there are those who see the M1’s ability to run iOS and iPadOS apps as somehow compromising macOS developers, as if it opened some floodgate from Apple’s dark side of consumer devices. Look instead at what we’d be saying if the opposite were true, that the ARM processor in a Mac couldn’t run the software that an ARM processor in an iPad could.

Instead of looking at what Apple’s has actually been doing these last few years, we’ve been force-fitting what we’ve seen into the scenarios that wake us in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. One of those has been the takeover of Macs by iOS and its apps, despite their obvious design for mobile touch-screen consumer devices. In the same breath we’ve been asking why Apple still hasn’t made a touch-screen Mac, while claiming that macOS is being swallowed by a touch-screen OS.

When Apple announces touch-screen devices – the new iPad Pro – with the same M1 chip as new Macs, none of this fits our preconceptions. It does make sense when you consider what the iPad Pro needs next in terms of support for external displays, for which the M1’s Fabric is ideal. With up to 16 GB of memory, compared to the measly 6 GB of the previous iPad Pro, it opens up the possibility that iPadOS will finally support swap space and gain the memory management features of macOS.

This would provide those in need of touch-screen input with two excellent options: an M1 iPad Pro, with its thoroughly touch-based OS, and that or another iPad using Sidecar for a Mac. The latter is often omitted, or underestimated. While it does require both a Mac and an iPad, most of those likely to benefit from Sidecar already have both systems, but few are likely to have invested in a Wacom Cintiq Pro, the closest third-party equivalent.

Don’t underestimate the performance and value of Sidecar. I’ve recently spent plenty of time using Sidecar with CorelDRAW, and that has become my only signficant use for my old iPad Pro and Apple Pencil.

Even bigger news came with the release of Parallels Desktop support for M1 Macs. In case you missed it, this brings closure to a strange story from WWDC last June, when Parallels became sufficiently overexcited to tease us with an announcement that it couldn’t tell us what it was doing in collaboration with Apple. As of now, M1 Macs can run any of several ARM ports of Linux, and the one operating system which Apple didn’t mention at WWDC, Windows. For the moment, that’s Windows 10 on ARM Insider Preview, but hopefully as Apple ships more M1 Macs, Microsoft will see its potential and offer an official product for the platform. For those who’d prefer a Linux without the VM, Asahi Linux seems to be making good progress.

Where then do Catalyst and running iOS/iPadOS apps come in Apple’s increasingly accommodating array of hardware and operating systems?

Imagine you’re a software developer looking to develop a new product which could make good use of the M1’s neural engine, but that requires significant additional engineering investment. Your chances of making that investment increase with the size of your market. Putting the same M1 in Macs and the iPad Pro makes a significant difference to market size, provided that it doesn’t increase the engineering effort required. Catalyst can enable such products, as can the ability of all those shiny new M1 Macs to run an iPadOS version.

Apple wants to sell M1 systems, be they Macs or iPadPros. We’re already getting over the honeymoon phase of telling one another how much faster the M1 is. Users are starting to ask what else an M1 model can offer – what it can do that an Intel Mac can’t, and why it’s worth giving up the comfort and convenience of Intel processors. Until the arrival of the first ‘killer’ apps which rely on its exclusive features, the M1 Mac will remain vulnerable to that question. However distasteful it might be to some, Catalyst and the M1 iPad Pro could well prove crucial to the success of the M1 Mac.