Roben Kleene

macOS Big Sur: Has the Dust Finally Settled on Limiting Third-Party Apps?

Apple’s strategy for years has been to trade desktop power for cross-device feature parity. As expected, macOS Big Sur continues this trend, emphasizing a consistent user interface across devices, and focusing on cross-device development technologies like SwiftUI and Catalyst.

Personally, I wish Apple had different priorities. I’d like to see more apps like Sketch, an industry-leading creative app that’s built top to bottom on Apple technologies. But Sketch was released in 2010, and Apple hasn’t created any new frameworks like Core Graphics and Core Image that support these kinds of apps in over a decade. So I wasn’t holding my breath for them to announce anything new for these kinds of apps at WWDC this year.

Since Apple isn’t prioritizing powerful desktop apps with their own technologies, that means supporting these use cases mostly falls on third parties. This is where companies like Adobe, Avid, Maxon, and Microsoft come in. While Apple’s priorities regarding their own technologies have been clear for awhile now, what hasn’t been clear is their priorities for third-party apps, in particular, ones that aren’t sandboxed. The trend for the last few years has been making it harder to develop these kinds of apps for macOS. AEpocalypse (2018), Catalina’s security features (2019), and Notarization (2018) are all examples of this trend.

The overarching reason behind the changes that make developing these kinds of apps harder is “Security”. And unlike cross-device feature parity, it’s unclear exactly where this all ends. Because after all, the most secure system there is is the one that doesn’t run any software at all. That’s why it’s such a pleasant surprise, that, as far as I can tell, Apple has done everything they can to make Big Sur, and the accompanying transition to Apple Silicon, as seamless as possible, even for apps that aren’t sandboxed.

Some were predicting that Macs on Apple Silicon wouldn’t even run apps from outside of the Mac App Store, that didn’t happen. It seemed more likely that Apple would drop OpenCL and OpenGL, but those are sticking along for the ride. No details were known about whether there would be an emulation layer like the original Rosetta from the 2006 Intel transition. Apple appears to have gone above in beyond with Rosetta 2, which even supports plug-ins like VSTis, giving lots of options for migration paths for powerful modular software.

I’m still frustrated that there probably won’t be another Sketch for the foreseeable future, but that ship sailed a long time ago. And no other platform has a Sketch either, an industry defining app that’s a platform exclusive, so while Apple has lost a unique advantage that only they had, they haven’t lost anything that other platforms already have. Other platforms can run powerful modular software that’s distributed outside the Mac App Store, but today, so can new Macs running Big Sur. Here’s to hoping that the dust has settled, and the last of the restrictions on third-party apps are behind us now.