macOS is doing just fine

Lately, I have been underwhelmed by recent macOS releases. I’ve had the impression that the development of macOS has mostly stagnated. When I see the focus and effort that Microsoft has put into Windows 10 and its many updates, I have been jealous that Apple hasn’t been giving the same kind of attention to my favorite operating system. Instead, it has been putting all of its eggs into the iOS basket. Or so it seemed.

So recently, I had been writing a piece I had tentatively titled “Frozen In Time”, which was referring to the following quote from the Rolling Stone interview of Steve Jobs in 1994:

They were able to copy the Mac because the Mac was frozen in time. The Mac didn’t change much for the last 10 years. It changed maybe 10 percent. It was a sitting duck. It’s amazing that it took Microsoft 10 years to copy something that was a sitting duck.

In the quote, Jobs is talking about Microsoft copying Mac OS software (not Macintosh hardware). The premise of my article was that macOS is back to where Mac OS was in 1994; a “sitting duck” just waiting to be surpassed by Windows (and even Linux) in the traditional desktop/laptop PC space… and that Apple doesn’t care because it has iOS.

However, after writing a large chunk of the article, as I was conducting research to back up some of my claims, I decided to trash it and reverse my stance. I was wrong. What I discovered is that Apple does care about macOS, and there is plenty of evidence of that—even if it’s not its primary focus anymore.

OS X Upgrades

From OS X 10.3 (Panther) in 2003 all the way to 10.7 (Lion) in 2011, there was always two years between major OS X versions, give or take a few months. Since Mountain Lion (10.8), Apple has been on an annual release schedule. So it’s not really fair to compare today’s free upgrades with the larger, paid ones that took place several years ago. Instead, we should be comparing the amount of effort put into the last two macOS releases with the pre-10.8 releases to see if macOS really has been stagnating.

And when you do that, it’s clear to see that there has been plenty of focus put into macOS. Here are the major features of 10.12 (Sierra) and 10.13 (High Sierra) combined (not including updates to bundled apps):

  • Siri
  • iCloud Drive and Optimized Storage
  • iCloud Desktop and Documents
  • Auto Unlock (via Apple Watch) and Universal Clipboard
  • Global Tabs and Picture-in-Picture
  • Night Shift
  • Folders on top (in Finder)
  • Apple File System (APFS)
  • Metal 2
  • HEVC and HEIF support (media features)

If Apple would have stuck to the two-year upgrade cadence, the above list would have been the major new features, and it’s quite a lot! Certainly enough to warrant a paid upgrade if Apple continued to charge for them. And that list doesn’t even include the plethora of Safari improvements and updates to bundled apps in both releases.

When you split all of the features up into two releases, however, the result is an upgrade that seems underwhelming, but is actually very reasonable for a year’s worth of work. This is especially true when you consider the impact of some of the features that were added, such as Siri and a brand new file system.

High Sierra in particular had very few new user-facing features, but APFS was a major under-the-hood change, so it makes sense that not a lot of other things were added over the course of a year. It was of utmost importance to put most of the effort into this feature, because getting it wrong would have been disastrous. Even so, Metal 2 and the new media features were also very significant additions that made the cut. These are not the types of things you see added to a neglected platform.

So the reality is, Apple has actually been putting just as much focus into macOS as they always have—they’re just giving us the new features sooner. I’d much rather have the annual free updates, than to have to wait two years and pay for them.

Apple is also not putting as much marketing into macOS as they used to, because let’s face it, most people are more interested in iPhones, iPads, and iOS—that’s where the money is after all. So that may be contributing to the impression that Apple doesn’t care, but I think it’s that people are unconsciously comparing the smaller updates to the larger OS X releases of old, just as I did.

Next Year

At this point, the only thing we really know about macOS 10.14 is that support for 32-bit apps will be “compromised” in some way. While this may be painful for some developers, this is overall good news in that it signals there are definitely improvements coming to macOS, and that Apple is continuing to push the platform forward.

With iPhones, iPads, and iOS in the limelight, combined with the smaller macOS upgrades due to the annual cadence, it’s easy to feel like macOS is being neglected. Indeed, that’s the impression I got before I took a good hard look at things. Once I took a closer look at the history of OS X, and compared it to recent macOS releases however, there is nothing to support the notion that Apple is somehow leaving macOS behind or that it doesn’t care about the platform. Quite the opposite in fact.

Are there some long-standing things in macOS that could use some attention? Sure, but that’s been the case since the beginning. Just read any one of John Siracusa’s reviews. Regarding the effort that Apple has put into macOS, nothing much has really changed. Long times between Mac hardware refreshes aside, it’s clear that macOS still has a bright future ahead of it. And that makes me very happy.

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