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How The iPad Could Potentially Affect The Future Of The Mac User Interface

It is difficult not to anticipate significant iOS-inspired changes shortly.

Apple’s commitment to allow iOS developers to port their apps to macOS in 2019 has been the subject of a great deal of discussion, including by yours truly. It has the potential to dramatically alter the Mac. However, Apple may not stop adding iOS applications to the Mac. What if the company uses macOS 10.15 (or, dare I say, macOS 13?) to further unify its platform interfaces?

Apple may decide to redefine what it means to be “Mac-like” this year, turning iOS and macOS into a continuum of interface decisions that are, for lack of a better term, “Apple-like.” iOS users may welcome the change, but Mac users may find it irritating. As someone who is both, I’m unsure where I stand, but it’s worthwhile to consider what Apple could do to make the Mac more similar to iOS.

Multitasking changes

Similar to the iPad, full-screen and split-view modes are already available in macOS. (It also has a sophisticated “windowing” mode that iOS lacks, but I doubt Apple is eager to add windows to iOS.) The one iPad multitasking feature macOS lacks is Slide Over, which allows you to place an app on the side of the screen, slide it in momentarily when desired, and quickly dismiss it.

On occasion, I’ve wished I could quickly view something in an application and then dismiss it on my Mac. In addition, macOS already includes Slide Over, although it is limited to Notification Center, which resides on the right side of the screen and can be activated by swiping the trackpad’s right edge.

More generally, it is important to consider where Mission Control gestures on the iPad make sense. In this regard, I’d prefer iOS to resemble Mac more than vice versa; I navigate my Mac endlessly with multi-finger trackpad gestures, and I’d love to be able to do the same on my iPad by dragging apps into different spaces.

Apple may consider an entirely new approach to multitasking (at least for Apple) by allowing users to configure their workspace using browser tabs. Apple released Sierra in 2016 with the ability for any app to tab everything, and Microsoft has recently been experimenting with allowing users to group windows from different apps into a single tab set. Microsoft gives the example of wanting Word, Excel, and browser tabs all open in the same workspace so that you can switch between them easily.

I am not entirely convinced that tabbed workspaces would excite me, as I am not particularly fond of the multi-tab lifestyle. However, it is difficult to deny that adding more tabs has become second nature for most users. And if Apple added tabbed multitasking to iOS, I wouldn’t be surprised if it brought the same convention to the Mac to keep everything in sync.

Notification and Control Centers

Apple has now unified the locations of the Notification Center and Control Center on the iPad and iPhone. To access Notification Center, you swipe down from the screen’s top. To access Control Center, swipe down from the upper left corner. It is plausible that Apple would want to unify this location on the Mac as well. To reveal the notification center, you would swipe from the very top of your trackpad downward with one finger (or click a menu bar item). A downward swipe from the upper-right corner would open Control Center.

Oh, the Mac no longer includes Control Center? Consider it an extension of menu bar icons, a place for Apple to conceal many controls that are currently displayed at the top level of Mac’s user interface. I am uncertain as to how a Mac version of Control Center would appear. Perhaps it would be a literal extension of the menu bar, with additional options and details, as well as direct access to the Settings (or System Preferences) application.

Docks and trackpads

Apple has been promoting the integration of iPad and Mac docks for some time. Mojave and iOS 12 added the concept of recently used or suggested apps to the dock’s end. On the iPad, you can drag apps out of the Dock to initiate multitasking, which could be an intriguing Mac feature. The Dock is automatically hidden when using apps on the iPad but can be accessed via a keyboard shortcut (Command-Option-D, the same shortcut as on the Mac) or by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. Appears to be a gesture that may also work on the trackpad.

The vast majority of Macs sold include a trackpad, and many of the Mac desktops Apple sells also utilize a Magic Trackpad. It is the most logical multi-touch surface for Apple to optimize for on the Mac while providing fallbacks for users of other pointing devices, as macOS currently does with the Notification Center. Adding more iOS-style gestures to the macOS trackpad and synchronizing the two more closely seems like a wise decision. They are not identical, but they are comparable.

What about a touchscreen?

Then there’s the big question: What if macOS devices incorporate touchscreens in the future? Apple has long scoffed at this common PC feature, but the arrival of touch-first iOS apps on the Mac makes one question whether Apple’s stance has changed.

I don’t think Apple will ever make a Mac that requires touch, but touch can be a nice add-on feature for scrolling browser windows and tapping on large interface elements. If Apple were to move in the direction of touchscreen Macs, they could support all of the iPad’s edge gestures. Introducing Control Center to supplement or replace these diminutive Mac menu bar items would also make the interface touch-friendly.

No sacred cows

Do I believe Apple will redesign the macOS user interface to closely resemble iOS in the ways described here? Unlikely, at least through 2019. But change is in the air, and it appears to me that macOS is transforming into something that has a great deal more in common with iOS than it does currently. Consider that every time you use an iOS device and a Mac and observe that the two platforms approach the same situation in different ways, someone at Apple has likely been considering how to unify this behavior for some time.

For what it’s worth, I’m holding out hope that the iPad will be adopting Mac features as well, but given that iOS has received the majority of Apple’s attention over the past decade—and that most of Mac’s major feature updates during that time have been to add features that exist on iOS or to provide compatibility or interoperability with iOS—it seems that the Mac has more ground to give when it comes to creating a unified Apple platform that spans everything from mobile devices to desktop computers.

I should also note that I do not believe Apple intends to make the Mac and iOS identical. It isn’t. Apple’s Mac is the only product line that includes laptops, desktops, and external pointing devices, so it will almost certainly retain a significant amount of its essential character. However, as someone who has used the Mac for nearly three decades, it is difficult not to believe that significant iOS-inspired changes are on the horizon.

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