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.

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