Software

Why native apps may be critical to Apple's Mac future

Though some credit native Mac apps as key to the platform's security, they actually perform a more important function.

Apple onlookers would dearly like to credit the Mac's steady rise—even as most other computer makers fall—to its strengths in security and performance, but they needn't bother. Not only does this view lead them onto the slippery slope of arguing for the Mac to become even more proprietary, but it also overlooks the simplest explanation for why the Mac rules: Apple has successfully sold the Mac (and iPhone) as a superior lifestyle brand.

It's not about security, in other words, it's about FOMO.

Even so, Apple expert John Gruber may have a point to his argument that native Mac applications could be key to its future. Here's why.

Remember when Windows was a security mess?

As much as Mac enthusiasts like to preen about the Mac's supposedly superior security record, such claims are dubious. Sure, there was a time when some smugly clung to their Macs because Windows was a morass of malware. Those days are long gone. Indeed, there have been reports that Mac OS X is actually more vulnerable than Windows, though further analysis puts such claims in question.

SEE: Software quality control policy (Tech Pro Research)

Regardless, consumers don't buy security. When the average consumer walks into an Apple Store to purchase a new laptop, she's not so much concerned with limiting the attack surface of her operating system as pairing a pristine iPhone experience to a new laptop. The smartphone purchase, in other words, is both inspiring brand affiliation and encouraging greater fealty to the Apple ecosystem.

As such, Gruber's argument (citing former Apple engineer Peter Ammon) for more native Mac apps as a route to improved security strikes me as wrong or, at least, misguided. It may be true that Apple could deliver greater security through more native apps, but consumers wouldn't care. That's not the real magic of the Mac.

Driving differentiation

He gets closer to the truth when arguing for non-native apps as a key differentiator for the Mac. While the Mac will continue to sell well simply due to its premium branding and connection to the iPhone ecosystem, apps may well come to matter more even as the PC platform comes to matter less.

As Gartner principal analyst Mikako Kitagawa has detailed, "PC buyers [increasingly] look for quality and functionality rather than looking for the lowest price."

Why so? Because in a world where smartphones or tablets have increasingly consumed general purpose computing cycles, the PC/Mac needs to fill a more specialized, higher-end role. The greater processing power and storage capacities of the Mac make it ideal for things like CPU-intensive photo or video editing, for example.

SEE: Are third-party macOS apps spying on you? (TechRepublic)

Applications, in other words, that perform better as native Mac applications.

Gruber has argued: "The real problems facing the Mac are the number of developers creating non-native 'Mac' apps and the number of users who don't have a problem with them." While this superficially smacks of Mac elitism—an argument against the web—Gruber went on to suggest that the Mac needs to be more than just a pretty face:

The web is of course essential on the Mac. But the Mac has little to no value added for using the web compared to other platforms. The value added is what makes the Mac the Mac, and gives it reason for continuing.

It may be too much to argue, as Gruber does, that "The whole point of the Mac is to be a great platform for native Mac apps," given that the Mac is exceptional as a platform for non-native Mac apps, too. With smartphones and tablets devouring more of these general purpose computing needs, however, Gruber is right to warn that Apple's app strategy should probably skew premium and proprietary, just like its hardware.

Also see

2017 iMac
Image: CNET

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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