Thoughts on MacOS 11: Big Sur, Big Changes

A Bluetooth Apple Keyboard. Text reads, iPad Apps on a Mac: Coming Soon.

At WWDC this year, Apple unveiled its annual slew of software updates for iOS, iPadOS, WatchOS and tvOS. However, the update for the Mac may well be one of the biggest changes in recent memory. MacOS 11, or Big Sur as it was dubbed, could very well change how future Macs are defined. It has big implications for schools, families and everyone else who is using Apple devices as part of their daily routine. Here’s why.

Design Continuity

The release of MacOS Big Sur, (as well as iOS 14 and iPadOS 14), has seen a convergence in the design language that Apple is using in its computing platforms. The iPad has borrowed design cues from the Mac for a while now, but this year MacOS and iOS are borrowing from each other as Apple attempts to unify and bring continuity to its different operating systems. There is now more familiarity between these two systems than there ever has been.

Messages on the Mac got a compete iOS-style makeover. It finally supports all the features you have come to enjoy on your iPhone or iPad. Mail, Maps and Safari also got a new look to harmonize the design between Apple’s computing platforms. The new Control Center on the Mac was inspired by iOS, while the new notifications and widgets have a design that will feel very familiar to iPhone and iPad users. The dock on the Mac is now more rounded than before and there are new iOS-style app icons for all of Apple’s built-in apps.

A screenshot of the new Control Center in MacOS Big Sur
Source: Apple

Introducing Apple Silicon

Also new in MacOS this year is support for Apple designed CPUs. Up until now, Apple has relied upon Intel to supply the chips for its desktop computers. That will change later this year when Apple has said it will unveil a new line of Macs that have Apple Silicon in place of an Intel CPU. That means when MacOS Big Sur launches in the Fall, it will work on Intel Macs as well as the upcoming Apple Silicon Macs.

This move has some very interesting implications for Mac users. It means that Apple controls more of the components it uses in its computers. It can design chips that are optimized to run with MacOS, and it can do it on Apple’s schedule, as opposed to Intel’s schedule. It also means that an LTE Mac may not be too far away. Battery life is sure to get a big boost, and remember all those design changes we just talked about? It’s hard not to look at the new Control Center, the widgets, or the spaced out menu bar and not think about the possibility of a touchscreen Mac.

Why would Apple add a touchscreen now when they resisted it for so long? I’m glad you asked, because another new feature that was announced at WWDC this year was the ability to run iPhone and iPad apps on an Apple Silicon Mac. With some minor modifications, developers will be able to offer their existing iOS apps on the Mac App Store. This will greatly extend the functionality of what a Mac can do and potentially open up new workflows for the way people like to work on a Mac.

An iMac and a MacBook Pro sitting next to each other on a table.
Source: Apple

Using an iPhone or iPad App on a Mac

The idea of iOS apps on a Mac may sound like a radical rethink of desktop computing, but Microsoft and Google have already waded into this water with varying degrees of success. Microsoft desperately wanted their Universal Windows Platform apps to take off, but developers never really got behind it. Google has brought Android apps to the Chromebook, but not many apps are really optimized to work well on ChromeOS. Will Apple do better? Time will tell, but this is exactly the kind of thing that modern Apple has become known for. They were not the first to create a smartphone, a smartwatch, or a tablet, but they excelled at iterating on the efforts of others to create industry-leading products.

For schools and families, I can see the instant appeal of a Mac that runs iOS apps. On one level, you have the power and practicality of a Mac; a computer that does everything a Windows computer can do and includes bonus features like AirDrop, AirPlay, iMessage and more. When you add the vast library of iOS apps that are available for iPhone and iPad, and pair that with a touchscreen, you get a formidable option that could be hard to match. It won’t be a cheap option, (this is no Chromebook competitor), but it will almost certainly be a formidable option that will garner interest from all kinds of users.

A MacBoook Pro with the new Safari start page on the screen
Source: Apple

What Will an Apple Silicone Mac Look Like?

In true Apple fashion, nobody really knows what an Apple Silicon Mac will look like. However, Apple did say that the first devices will be released before the end of 2020, and they are planning to put Apple Silicon in every Mac they make within two years. That could mean a reimagining of the existing Mac laptop with the introduction of a new 2-in-1 design that includes rear-facing cameras, AR capabilities, Face ID, and ProMotion, or it could be as simple as adding a touch screen and an LTE model. My money is on the latter, especially with that two-year timeline, but maybe they will surprise us with something unexpected.

What About the iPad?

All of this begs an obvious question. If an Apple Silicon Mac can do everything that an iPad does, then why would you buy an iPad at all? To that I would say that Apple is not in the habit of deprecating its own devices by offering competing products in its lineup. Personally, I think there is room for both products, and several of the analysts I follow have a theory that speaks to this. Here’s how that goes.

The iPad was built with touch at the center of everything you do. You can use a mouse or a keyboard if you want, but they are not integral to the experience of using an iPad. The new Apple Silicon Macs will be billed as the opposite. They are primarily meant to be used with a keyboard and mouse. The touch screen is available if you want it, (and so are iOS apps), but a Mac will still do everything you need it to do without ever lifting a finger towards your screen.

Outside of that, a Mac can’t replace all the functionality of an iPad. An iPad will probably always be lighter and more portable than a Mac. It works well in situations where a laptop or a desktop are not really appropriate, and it runs iPadOS, which many people just find simpler, easier to use, and less prone to bugs, malware, and the like.

These Are Interesting Times for the Mac

The Fall will be an exciting time for Mac users, many of whom have felt that the Mac has taken a back seat to iOS in recent years. MacOS has looked the same for years now. It hasn’t had significant feature updates for a long time while Windows and ChromeOS continue to evolve at pace. In a few short months, that is all about to change. It may be a bumpy ride while Apple works out the early kinks in their new devices, but the potential they have to change computing as we know it is clearly there to see. Stay tuned.

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