Project Catalyst and Swift UI

From the very beginning, there has always been a tension between UIs for smartphones, tablets and PCs.

When Microsoft started work on their tablets in the 1990s, their idea was to bring the Windows UI experience to a touch screen. This also meant that you needed a stylus to be able to hit the small buttons and menus with precision and essentially emulate a mouse. Their concept was fully reversed in Windows 8, when they prioritized a tablet UI which was based on their smartphone UI. This ended up making it very confusing for customers who were accustomed to the desktop UI dating back to Windows 95, and Windows 8 ended up being a huge failure especially in the enterprise. Windows 10, although taking some design cues from Windows 8, shifted back to prioritizing the traditional Windows 95-ish interface, a decision that was made easier for them due to the failure of Windows Phone OS and Windows tablets. With their new Surface detachable PC lineup, they are now making tablet hardware that simply runs their desktop OS. So, in a nutshell, Microsoft started out thinking tablets are more mobile PCs, then thought that tablets and PCs are big smartphones, and has now reverted to the conclusion that tablets are more mobile PCs.

With Android, Google gained a strong position in smartphones and tablets. Their approach was to have the developer design a single UI that would automatically adapt itself based on the screen size of the device. Developers were not forced to design separate UIs, and indeed this would have been impractical since Android devices came in all shapes and sizes. While this was effective in easing the burden for developers, it also resulted in very few applications being optimized for larger screens and as a result, to this day, many Android tablet apps have a UI that is simply a stretched out smartphone one. Google’s next attempt in tablets was to fit in an operating system (Chrome OS) that was build for desktop PCs and to also let smartphone apps run on it. However, the recent admission that they will no longer do their own tablet hardware suggests that Google is no longer focused on this segment any more. Here we see Google starting out with thinking that tablets are big smartphones, and then reversing course and trying to make tablets into small PCs, shortly thereafter concluding that this is not worth their time.

When Apple introduced the iPhone, they chose a simplified UI with big buttons and which did not need a stylus. When they later introduced the iPad based on the same operating system, they also chose the same UI. Despite the iPad having a much larger screen, iPads also did not have support for multiple windows which was possibly due to sharing the UI with a smartphone. One important pillar of Apple’s UI strategy was to keep touch UIs and mouse-based UIs separate. Although they shared similar building blocks, the UI for the iPhone/iPad and the UI for the Mac were never mixed, and there was never an attempt to create a unifying UI concept. Apple also kept the UI for iPhones and iPads separate. Instead of making it easy to design a single UI that would dynamically stretch based on whatever screen size it found itself on, Apple required that developers design each interface specifically for iPhones and iPads. To assist this, in the early days, Apple made sure that they have only a limited number of screen sizes and dimensions to design for, and this is surely why the early iPad minis had identical pixel counts and screen aspect ratios to their larger counterparts, so that developers could consider all iPads to be identical. Now with Project Catalyst and Swift UI, Apple is still keeping the UIs for its smartphone and tablet OS separate from its one for desktop PCs. However, it is making it significantly easier to develop them using common code bases.

Project Catalyst and Swift UI make it clearer than ever that Apple will continue its path of keeping the UI for each device separate. The new name for iPad OS further cements this direction of having a UI that is optimized for each device. These new technologies are significant in that they make it easier for developers to create and maintain apps with distinct UIs, but we should make sure not to confuse this with a convergence of the UIs themselves, which is not what Apple is doing here. Apple is focused on providing an optimized experience for every device that it creates, and what they announced are the tools that will enable and accelerate their efforts.

It is also interesting to contemplate here what directions Microsoft and Google will take.

Microsoft now has a clear tablet strategy and that is to bring their desktop experience to a detachable form factor. They realize that hardware innovation is an important factor and this is why they are investing heavily in this. For smartphones, Microsoft has a clear plan to hijack Google’s Android by taking advantage of its openness, and to make it work exceptionally well with Windows and Office. For the desktop, Microsoft is pushing to regain control of the browser, again, hijacking Google’s Chromium. They have the best, clearest and most practical device strategy they have had in over a decade.

Google is only strong in smartphones. Android is widely used for tablets, but mostly just because they are cheap and are nice for viewing videos. Chrome OS has yet to gain serious traction outside of US education. Their tablet strategy has been very confusing and lacks consistency. It appears that they are focusing more on AI and are not very interested anymore in ensuring that they have significant headway in the devices that will bring them in advertising dollars. I consider this to be a risk long-term. Both Microsoft and Apple have announced a strong privacy focus that does not agree with Google’s idea that tracking is acceptable as long as your personal data remains inside Google. If Google loses in tablets and Microsoft’s Chromium Edge gains traction on the desktop, then they will lose a significant amount of their tracking ability. I would expect them to put more effort into devices, but I have yet to see proof of this.

Android Squeeze

Although Android still commands 80% market share of new smartphone sales, the situation for smartwatches and tablets is starting to get a bit dire and Google does not seem to be particularly interested in doing something significant about this. With smartwatches, Apple Watch is by far the market leader despite Google and Android putting a lot of effort and beating Apple to the market during the early days. Google’s efforts in smartwatches are so tepid that both Samsung and Huawei have created their own wearable OS on which to base their devices on. Also in tablets, people are still scratching their heads about Google’s strategy for this market segment. We have seen Chrome OS-based tablets from Google which are also capable of running Android apps, but with very little promotion and also meager adoption by OEMs, one has to wonder what ideas Google has to counter the resurgence of the iPad and its evolution into a more capable device.

Given what we are currently seeing, it seems that Google will no longer be controlling what happens in smartwatches nor tablets, both of which still have a much better chance of becoming the next big thing in computing then say smart speakers.

In fact, Android might experience a bit of a squeeze. On the lower end, Apple Watch is evolving to become more independent of the iPhone and will be able to perform more and more tasks on its own. No doubt Samsung and Huawei will evolve their platforms in a similar way, if they haven’t already. On the higher end, simply through the benefits provided by Moore’s Law, Windows tablets from a variety of vendors will evolve to be more capable, less-power hungry, and overall a better experience then Android devices with a blown up smartphone interface. By being pressured from both the low-end and the high-end, Android will be confined to a large but nonetheless single segment of computing platforms – smartphones.

The hope for Google of course is that smartphones will continue to be just as central to computing as they are now, and that neither smartwatches nor tablets will encroach on smartphone territory. Whether this proves to be the case or not, I consider it noteworthy that Google no longer has a strategy to expand its reach outside of smartphones and this poses significant risk. Additionally, if we look at desktop browsers which arguably could also be called a platform, Microsoft’s plan to adopt WebKit/Blink for their next version of Edge will put them immediately on par with Chrome in terms of performance and rendering accuracy. On multiple fronts, Google is now in a defensive position in terms of platforms.

The iPad Native App or Web App Question

Frederico Viticci had dug deep down into what Craig Federighi meant by “Desktop-class Browsing on iPad OS” at WWDC 2019. In a nutshell, Frederico found that it truly is about the ability to use fully use web apps intended for PCs on the iPad. This has interesting implications.

With their web apps now fully functional on the iPad, developers will have less incentive to create iPad apps. A web app or some thin wrapper around a WebView kind of app will suffice.

On the other hand, Swift UI and Project Catalyst provide a strong incentive to build an iPad app. Even if you don’t yet have an iPad app, you will surely have something for the iPhone, and this means that you will already have a foundation for building apps that run from the iPhone to the iPad to the Mac. Furthermore, Swift UI will make the task of creating a great UI so much easier.

So will we end up having more native apps on the iPad or will we end up having less. It will be interesting to see how the developers think through the pros and cons.

iPad OS and Android OS or Chrome OS

Apple has separated iPad OS from iOS with the clear intention of moving the iPad OS towards a different experience that is more optimized for productivity, or the tasks that will require a larger screen and maybe a keyboard. On the other side of the fence, we see Google which has a very successful smartphone OS, but cannot decide on what to do with its tablet strategy. We also see Microsoft which has failed in its smartphone strategy, audaciously attempted to rebuild its desktop OS around mobile (and failed), and is now basically waiting on Moore’s Law to bring the combination of high performance and long battery life to their Surface detachable PCs.

iPad OS vs. Google Android or Chrome

Although the vast majority of tablets sold from 3rd parties still run Android, it is clear that Google itself thinks that the future or its tablets are Chrome OS. Their most recent tablet hardware offering, the Google Pixel Slate makes this very clear. However, this is hardly ready for prime time and the market response has been lukewarm at best. Simply, it isn’t selling enough to make a noise. The fusion of an OS that is by and large only popular in US schools and an OS that still isn’t considered seriously as a tablet by developers has not generated a winner.

At this point, it is very difficult to be optimistic about the future of a Google-backed OS outside of smartphones and in the productivity segment. However, what we might see is people in developing countries like China and India increasingly use their large phablets as their sole productivity device. This is a trend that is also worth watching.

iPad OS vs. Windows

This is by far the more interesting platform war to watch. There are a couple things to note.

  1. Detachable Windows PCs will increase in performance and battery-life due to Moore’s Law, thereby overcoming their most often criticized weak points, regardless of the move to ARM is successful or not.
  2. iPads OS will evolve to be more and more capable of performing desktop PC tasks.

Today, there is a clear difference between what a PC is good at and where the iPad excels. PCs are heavier and more cumbersome but have a full browser and a full Office suite. iPads are lighter, have better battery life but suffer from a mobile browser that cannot handle many desktop-class web apps, and have office suites with reduced feature sets. However in the near future, the boundaries will blur due to the factors above and the battle will be waged on more interesting issues. I predict this to be very close and I do not expect a decisive victory on either end. In ten years, we will probably live in a world where iPads and Windows tablets happily coexist to get work done.

One of the weaknesses of Microsoft here is that their integration with smartphones is still insufficient. Since many users would like to seamlessly transition between working on a smartphone and their main productivity device, Microsoft has been working with iOS and Android to build their tools for integration. This is particularly interesting given Google’s weak position here, since it means that Microsoft will most likely be successful in convincing Android users that instead of looking at Chrome OS tablet offerings when considering productivity, they should just continue to use Windows.

In Summary

Before the announcements at WWDC 2019, it was unclear whether iPad would be a strong contender for the next generation of productivity devices. With the iPad OS however, it is very hard now to remain doubtful. iPads will most certainly evolve to be a very big part of our productivity going forward.

Windows still dominates in productivity, and Microsoft has been doing its homework to make sure that this continues to be the case. Although its weakness in smartphones is damaging, they are doing a good job of building up the continuity features so that users can seamlessly switch between tasks on their smartphone and their preferred productivity device. Moore’s Law is on their side.

Google’s position which is to bet on the Chrome OS, is looking very weak now. It was weak before, but with a desktop-class browser coming to iPad OS, the only thing that they have left going for them is the legacy pointing device (and yes, you can safely bet that web app developers will test their UI on iPads from now on). Chrome OS will continue to be a nice OS to work on, but it will hardly be the next generation productivity tool. Moore’s Law will also work against Chrome OS relative to Windows.

Privacy is Expensive

Google’s Sundar Pichai, in an opt-ed for the New York Times.

Our mission compels us to take the same approach to privacy. For us, that means privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services. Privacy must be equally available to everyone in the world.

Matthew Green, a cryptographer at Johns Hopkins University on the elaborate encryption scheme built into Apple’s “Find My” feature, which encrypts the location data from Apple and all the stranger devices that are use to relay the information back to the user (via Wired).

I give them nine out of 10 chance of getting it right,” Green says. “I have not seen anyone actually deploy anything like this to a billion people. The actual techniques are pretty well known in the scientific sense. But actually implementing this will be pretty impressive.

It turns out that the technology that will enable us to enjoy various services while honoring our privacy is still being developed, and is not yet widely available. Features like “Find My” would be much easier and cheaper to implement without this encryption.

Therefore, although Sundar Pichai tells us that privacy should be equally available to everyone for free, that is an unrealistic approach in the near-term. Somebody has to pay the bills and the bills are substantial. Ultimately, if privacy is to be maintained, then the price of privacy has to be included in the cost of the service, whether it is bundled in the price of a device or not.

Offering a cheap service that provides a lower level of privacy is not an option if we consider privacy as a fundamental human right. Just as pharmaceuticals have to maintain a very high and costly level of safety, regardless of whether it is a cheap drug or a cutting-edge million dollar therapy, the same level of privacy should be assured for the rich and poor alike.

It is still debatable whether Sundar Pichai’s definition of privacy – that corporations can hold on to unlimited amounts of user data as long as they do not pass it on to third parties (except the US government maybe) – will be accepted by legislators and the public. On the other hand however, it could prove unrealistic to require the same level as what Apple is doing due to technical difficulties and costs, and it might even be against the interests of the governments that wish to maintain the capability to spy on people.

It’s easy to say that privacy should not be a luxury good, but the reality is much more complex then that.

Democracy, Capitalism, Anti-Trust and Privacy

There is currently a lot of talk about anti-trust regulation of the big tech companies and also how tech companies are invading our privacy. This is all very inter-twined with the ideas of democracy and capitalism and makes the whole discussion very complex. Here, I want to touch on a few concepts in the hope that we can understand the situation a bit better.

The idea of anti-trust

Anti-trust is based on the very painful observation that free enterprise and capitalism by itself can end up hurting the economy. Laissez-faire economics can run amok and end up in monopolies that do not have to compete for customers, leading to a slowdown of innovation and price competition. Anti-trust aims to ensure that there is always a certain level of healthy competition and choice for the customer.

Anti-trust puts a brake on the dealings of capitalism, for the benefit of customers.

The idea of privacy

Tim Cook says that privacy is a fundamental human right. What is interesting however, is that what we today consider fundamental human rights were not always so. 100 years ago, women, let alone people of color, did not have the right to vote even in many “forward thinking” western democracies, including the USA. The United Nations “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” exists because these rights are so frequently under attack.

Capitalism nor democracy itself can ensure that our human rights are withheld. In fact, our human rights can be in direct conflict with the interests of companies operating under capitalism or our governments operating under democracy. The idea is that when faced with a dilemma between human rights and our institutions, human rights should take priority.

Therefore, the issue of privacy should not be about which company profits or not. It should be about whether our rights are more important than corporate profits or government espionage. It should be an independent discussion.

Should Apple be prevented from enforcing the “Apple Sign In” feature on apps in the App Store? Should this be investigated under anti-trust? Should Google be excused from delving into the details of your private life, because it can provide you and society with an economic benefit? This all depends on what your views on fundamental human rights are, and whether your rights are absolute or should be balanced against the economy. I personally take the view that our rights should be respected despite any disadvantage it may place on the economy, and that therefore discussions of privacy and anti-trust should be clearly separated.


My proposal is that

  1. “Apple Sign In” should not be evaluated under anti-trust. Instead, governments should ensure that similar schemes are available from outside Apple, or they should audit Apple to ensure that any information that Apple may obtain from this scheme should be firewalled from the rest of the organization. Governments should ensure that “Apple Sign In” is not used as a Trojan horse to increase Apple customers. Similarly, Google, Twitter and Facebook should also receive audits to ensure that their sign-in schemes are not deceptively undermining privacy. A clear separation of human rights and economic benefits is the only way to ensure that our rights will be respected.
  2. Any company that deals with customer information should be required by law to adhere to fundamental privacy principles. In the case of massive companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon or Apple, these should be audited so that we know that they are not doing something nasty behind their backs. This is similar to what is required in the Pharma market, despite huge costs, to ensure that the drugs that enter our bodies are safe. In the same way that patient safety is of paramount importance, privacy too should be protected regardless of the economic costs.

The Consequences of Platform Wars

In my previous post, I predicted that the newly named iPad OS and Apple’s strong commitment to evolving the iPad into a full productivity machine, will bring forth a new platform war between PCs and iPad. Now, although we often talk about platform wars, we rarely think about what the consequences are. Here I would like to dig into this subject a bit deeper.

Platform wars involve different values and business models

Just like in the real and bloody wars where thousands to millions of people get killed, platform wars often involve a difference in fundamental beliefs and understandings. More often then not, they are more than just some companies battling it out for more market share.

Take the traditional Windows vs Mac war for example. Windows machines, or the IBM PCs that came before, were built for businesses. They weren’t about innovation or changing the world, but instead were about mass-adoption of technologies that had already been somewhat established but for a limited audience only. Whereas Steve Jobs talked about a “bicycle for the mind”, Bill Gates talked about “a computer on every desk and in every home”, and it was the differences in these two values that characterized the Windows vs Mac platform war.

In the iPhone vs Android platform war, Apple’s position again was to expand the possibilities of mobile computing. Instead of entering the market with a low-powered device similar to what had come before, the iPhone was a full-fledged UNIX system with a powerful web browser. It was bringing PC capabilities to a cellphone form factor and thereby significantly widening the horizon of what could be done on a mobile device. On the other hand, Android was focused on bringing a copy of a successful device to the wider market. It began life as a BlackBerry look-alike and after the announcement of the iPhone, Google quickly changed course and decided to copy the latter. Android was targeted at customers who could not own an iPhone due to either price or that their carrier of choice did not yet sell them. Here again, we see a platform war between a company that valued expanding the possibilities of technology, and one that was more interested in broadening the reach.

The Browser wars too were fought between two companies with different interests. Netscape wanted to make the browser into the next computing platform, and evolved its Communicator software to include not only web browsing, but also email, address books, web editing and news groups. Netscape was OS-agnostic and distributed software for use on Windows, Mac and UNIX. On the other hand, Microsoft integrated Internet Explorer into Windows and rebuilt Windows for the Internet era.

The examples above show that we tend not to see platform wars between companies with similar vested interests, market positions and business models. Instead the competitors are very different and as a result, the platform that wins ends up defining the values and business models for the future. Just as World War 2 ended up dividing the world between the two victorious ideologies (capitalism and communism) and ending fascism, platform wars in computing similarly define the mid-term fate of technology.

The Windows vs Mac platform war

The Windows vs Mac platform war was decisively won by Windows. Although the Mac did not go out of business and survived in a tiny niche, Windows held 90% market share and dominated business and home use alike.

Because the values held by Microsoft were about spreading computing as widely as possible, the focus was on reducing prices and making this as affordable as possible. As a result, what followed was cutthroat competition among hardware vendors and perpetual cost cutting with razor thin margins. Innovation between hardware vendors ceased and product differentiation increasingly relied on what CPUs were placed on the motherboards. Hence the era of dull and boring beige boxes.

People often blame the lack of innovation on the maturity of the market, saturation, and the paucity of new and worthwhile things left to do. I argue that this is not the case and instead, what causes stagnation, is the value system of the victors of the preceding platform war. That is to say, whoever wins the platform war and their value system defines subsequent innovation.

The iPhone vs Android platform war

The iPhone vs Android platform war ended up in both sides getting what they wanted in the beginning but not much more. That is, iPhone won the customers who are willing to pay significantly more for high-value products, and Android won those who were not. Although Android ended up with more than 80% market share, the minority iPhone users tended to be more affluent and even with less then 20% market share, the number of users were still massive. Therefore we see the value systems of both companies still having a strong influence on the market.

This is why, even though the market has saturated, we still see significant innovation on the vendor side and even rising average selling prices (ASPs). Because Apple leads the market with very expensive phones that rise in prices, Samsung and other Android vendors can also follow suite and develop high-end, high-priced phones which included innovative technologies. Apple keeps raising the bar on what high-end flagship phones should be capable of and what they should cost, and this provides Android vendors with an umbrella under which they can invest in their own innovative ideas.

If iPhone had decisively won this war, then we would probably be seeing a landscape where touch-based smartphones would still be a premium product benefiting the minority. If Android had won, then we would probably be seeing cutthroat competition with a dearth of innovation. We are lucky that the current landscape is a good balance between both, and that innovation is being enjoyed by all.

A future iPad vs PC platform war

As mentioned above, the PC vs Mac platform war was decisively won by Microsoft Windows, and as a result, we ended up with a situation where vendor innovation almost ceased to exist. With the iPad coming from a different value system and igniting a new platform war, this will usher in a new era where we will see many new ideas and concepts.

In fact, we have already seen this happen. The popularity of the iPad has given rise to PCs that fold and detach and which have become much more mobile. There are even rumors of ARM-based Windows devices, which will hopefully allow even more mobile designs with longer battery life.

We have also seen the premium-priced iPads helping PC vendors command higher prices. Although entry-level iPads are priced very competitively, the high-end iPad Pros are expensive and so this has provided an umbrella allowing PC vendors to innovate with designs that were not cheap.

In the future, as iPads evolve to become even more competitive against PCs, we can expect to see even more innovation come out from PC vendors. We might even see companies like Samsung integrate innovative technologies like folding displays or something even more exotic. We are currently severely lacking in an OS that can fully contend with iPad OS, but even this may not be so far away. The new iPad vs PC platform war has and will continue to spark innovation in a previously stagnant market, and although the PCs of tomorrow may no longer look the same as the ones that we have today, there is much to look forward to.

Desktop Safari on iPads

The WWDC 2019 Keynote happened yesterday. Amongst a plethora of exciting announcements, it was also revealed that the iPad OS will received a lot of meaningful enhancements to enable iPads to be used much more like PCs. Although it is debatable whether iPads will now be full PC replacements for the majority of people in 2019, what is more important is that Apple is fully committed to making this happen and is laying the groundwork for faster improvements by liberating the iPad OS from any restrictions that the association with iPhone may have caused. The iPad OS is free to innovate and pursue the goal of fulfilling its true potential.

Instead of being an entertainment device, there is no question that in the not too distant future, the iPad will evolve to be a fully capable productivity tool. Therefore the next platform war will be PCs vs iPads, and unfortunately neither Android nor Chrome OS is a viable contender yet.

One feature that I think is exceptionally worth mentioning is that iPad Safari will provide a full desktop experience. For the last several years, innovation in productivity tools on PCs happened mostly on web applications. Very few interesting applications were written in platform native code. This means that if iPad Safari truly delivers and is able to run web applications just like a PC, a big chunk of the PC advantage will evaporate within a very short timespan.

A platform war of PCs vs iPads will have a lot of implications that I don’t think have been sufficiently debated. Of course there is the Windows Surface vs iPad aspect, but in reality, the stakes on Microsoft’s side are not particularly strong here. Google is also a stakeholder because if the importance of PCs deteriorates and is replaced by iPads, then they will lose their strategic position as the owner of the dominant browser. The war will also be played in a very different way because it involves an already mature market and will not be a simple Gold Rush land-grab.