Project Catalyst reveals Apple’s struggle with the future of the Mac

There’s a old joke about a bad writer blaming his tools—a sad excuse that it was the typewriter and not poor writing skill that was to blame. When macOS Mojave was announced last year, featuring four apps that originated on iOS and had been moved to the Mac by something we now call Catalyst, many of us were quick to blame Catalyst for the strange design quirks of those apps, which seemed simplified in ways that were jarring.

Recent statements by Apple software head Craig Federighi, including his interview with John Gruber during WWDC and a subsequent interview with Jason Hiner of Cnet, make it worth revisiting that assumption.

“When I read some of the initial reviews of those apps, people were saying, ‘Obviously this technology is causing them to do things that don’t feel Mac-like,’” Federighi told Cnet. “Honestly, 90 percent of those were just decisions that designers made … People took that as ‘this feels iOS-y’ and therefore they thought it was a technology thing. Actually, it was a designer preference.”

“The apps were bad because we made bad design choices” is a bit of a weird defense. Is Federighi just defending Catalyst and his engineers (at, I might point out, the expense of his designers), or is there more to this? I suspect it’s a little of both, as Apple tries to create a bridge between two very different platforms at the same time that it’s tinkering with a wholesale redesign of what it means to be a well-designed Mac app.

Searching for the exemplary apps

There was a time when Apple set the standard for the apps on the Mac. To see an Apple-built app was to see what apps on the Mac should look like. Especially in the early days of Mac OS X, we would pore over included apps like Safari and Mail and Address Book and bundled apps like those found in the iWork and iLife collections.

These apps would suggest to Mac app developers what Apple thought the state of the art of Mac app design was. A few months later you’d…

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