April 6, 2016

Is Mac Software Boring?

Brent Simmons offers a thoughtful piece about one of the great mysteries of the software scene today. It’s now clear that it’s extremely difficult to make money crafting well-designed and well-implemented software for iOS. Macintosh software, on the other hand, is challenging but clearly viable.

Nevertheless, lots of people want to write for iOS rather than for OS X. Why is that?

Brent thinks it’s the extra layer of difficulty in the Mac.

Were Macs to get some form of UIKit, it would have to be extended with all the things Macs need. Let’s assume we’ll still have multiple, resizable, movable windows; we’ll still have a menubar; we’ll still have AppleScript and Services and similar.

Anybody bringing an iOS app to the Mac is going to have to learn those things and handle them.


The additional stuff — menus, live resizing, AppleScript, etc. — is enough of a burden that people just don’t want to do it.

But you know what? You don’t need that stuff. Well, you do need menus, but basic menu handling is trivial. Live resizing looks nice, and looking nice is always pleasant, but if you’re doing something that people need, who cares if it looks nice? I bought a rake yesterday; it doesn't look particularly wonderful but, when you need a rake, a rake is what you need. (Plus, with a cake, you can have cake on a rake.)

AppleScript can be a pain to support, and twenty years ago you needed it or the influential magazines would dock you a mouse. Then, a couple of people discovered that hardly anyone really needed scripting support. The magazines all collapsed, anyway, and here we are. If you don’t want to support scripting, if it’s not central to the way you’re helping people, then you don’t need it. If services aren’t central to what you’re offering, you don’t need them, either.

My guess is that the problem isn’t that Mac software is ineffably less fun to write. Nor is the problem, really, that iPhones are sexier platforms. A lot of people still think that some tiny little application -- a game they dash off in a few evenings, a trivial utility like a flashlight – will sell a million copies in the app store. Why not? That’s less than 1% of the potential market.

But it’s not going to happen. Lightning strikes sometimes, but it doesn’t appear to strike the meritorious or the clever, the people with skill or fashion sense or any other discernible quality. Even Flappy Bird was only doing a fraction of that business, and that was only for a month or two.