It’s the time of year that fruit and beta-releases ripen, and many of us wonder when we should consider upgrading to the next major version of macOS: sooner, later or even not at all? Over the next week or two I’m going to look in greater detail at what you’ll be letting yourself in for, and here summarise four solid reasons for upgrading early, by the end of the year at the latest.
Since the first release of Mac OS X there have been several changes in its human interface, but none so bold and potentially empowering as Stage Manager. This is the first serious attempt to address the challenges of working with a dozen or more apps and even more windows open at the same time, without having to sprawl over multiple displays.
Like many interface changes, it might well seem unimpressive when you first try it. Stick with it over a few days, though, to learn how to get more from it, and you could well find it changing the way you work.
What puzzles me the most is that no one seems to have provided us with a terminology to describe its tools. In the absence of anything better, I’ll refer to the central windows of the active app(s) as being on Stage, and those shown in miniature at the left as being in its Cast. So when you click on one of the Cast to bring it on Stage, you’re going to work with those windows; when you switch to another one of its Cast, what’s on Stage drops back into the Cast again.
Used with single apps in the Cast, Stage Manager is interesting, but not too impressive. My moment of recognition came when I discovered how to group apps into Cast members, so that bringing them on Stage switches to a different working environment instantly. When writing code, for example, a single member of the Cast might group together Xcode, Dash and Developer, and for writing articles for this blog I might have MarsEdit, BBEdit and GraphicConverter as another group in the Cast.
If anyone offers you a technology which can bring an end to password pain, seize it with both hands. As that’s exactly what Passkeys does, it must be the most compelling new feature in Ventura.
From the user’s viewpoint, it’s all very simple: instead of using a password to authenticate to each of the websites and online services you access, your Mac sends a public key. The server holds that for subsequent authentication by challenging your Mac to prove its identity is valid. This is similar to the way in which hardware security keys work, but accomplished in software.
As third-parties including the website or online service only ever see your public key, and its paired private key remains secured in your keychain, this should be immune from phishing attacks, and from compromises that release the contents of remote servers. Instead of your password being released, all that is to be found is that public key, which won’t get a hacker anywhere.
Passkeys should bring a new era for accessing online sites and services in which we’re never left fumbling around looking for that password we wrote down in a little book somewhere, requesting a password reset because we can’t find it, or learning how many of our passwords have been compromised.
The most controversial change in Ventura is the replacement of creaky old System Preferences and its multiplicity of panes with new, iPadOS-style System Settings.
This is hotly contested territory. There’s now so much tucked away in System Preferences that few users can navigate all its settings efficiently. Two extremes are to flatten its hierarchy and generate dozens of individual groups of settings, or to deepen it and force you to navigate a long series of choices before you reach the setting you’re after.
Several beta-testers have already looked at Apple’s early efforts critically, and proposed many changes that could result in improvement. Recently I’ve spent plenty of time navigating the new System Settings, and wonder whether we’re using its navigational aids as well as we will in the future.
For instance, when I’ve been looking at Stage Manager, one problem I experienced initially was how deep its options were embedded in System Settings, and how many clicks it takes to reach them. That’s because, to begin with, I was trying to access them the same way that I have done in the past with System Preferences, through the pane and its contents.
When you’re going to use Stage Manager much, the first step is to enable it in the menu bar, which gives you instant single-click access to that deeply buried dialog. Even if you haven’t done that, searching on the term Stage Manager returns a direct link to that same dialog. I’m sure that the rough edges of System Settings will get smoothed off, and I’m equally confident that in a couple of years most of us will access them quite differently from the way that we’ve been using System Preferences in the past.
Rapid Security Response
My final major advance in Ventura is perhaps one of its least visible, and to the best of my knowledge has yet to undergo public demonstration: it’s the new scheme intended to allow Apple to push small and urgent security updates to macOS, rather than having to offer a full-blown macOS update.
I track macOS updates and their sizes, and was staggered at the frequent huge updates that Apple presented us with for Big Sur. Although these have improved in Monterey, a minimal security update like 12.5.1, which fixed just two vulnerabilities, required more than 2 GB to be downloaded, up to 30 minutes to prepare, and at least 15 minutes during which each Mac was out of action. The burden on Apple’s engineers preparing those updates is also considerable.
Rapid Security Response (RSR) will enable Apple to push small security fixes without requiring full macOS updates. Although Apple hasn’t released further details, it’s most likely that this will involve the installation of encrypted patch files. Similar techniques could be used to store parts of the system which don’t get installed in the SSV, but on the Data volume, including Safari and macOS security tools.
RSR not only promises us smaller security updates, but should expedite their distribution by Apple. In the longer-term, it may herald further improvements to the security protection of macOS. Like Passkeys, it’s another of the most compelling new features in Ventura.
When you look through the list of changes and improvements coming in Ventura, don’t breeze through them wondering why on earth you’d want to upgrade for the sake of extended language support, or fancier Memoji. Consider first and foremost Stage Manager, Passkeys, Rapid Security Response and even System Settings. I’ll be looking in more detail at each of them to see how much you’d be missing.