For millions of businesses around the world, desktop apps are a key way to reach customers. Building them is also an expensive, slow job that requires a team of developers and designers — particularly if they’re building for multiple platforms, like Windows, macOS, and Linux, at the same time.
Or it was, anyway, until a framework called Electron came along and completely changed the business model, disrupting the way modern apps are developed. Electron allows developers to use web-based programming languages and tools to write a single set of code that runs on every operating system, while still allowing for device-specific functionality, like the use of media buttons on your keyboard.
Many of the tools you use every day are based on Electron or similar frameworks, including Slack, Visual Studio Code, Spotify, WhatsApp, Discord, and more. Electron has eaten desktop apps whole, and native apps — like, say, Pages for Mac — have struggled as a result. More macOS apps than ever are based on web technologies, and Apple wants to change that.
Electron represents something of an existential crisis for Apple. If developers can build with web-based frameworks, they’re less likely to use Apple’s tools, services, and ultimately, its App Store. That’s especially worrying at a time when sales of Apple’s iPhones seem to be plateauing.
Project Catalyst, announced at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, is a Hail Mary move designed to bring developers back to the company’s ecosystem. Its goal is to make building a native app as easy as building with Electron. Catalyst makes it easy for developers with iPad apps to port them to the Mac, allowing them to run on the desktop with few changes to the codebase.
Essentially, it’s a very similar approach to Electron, with a major caveat: It only targets one platform, effectively only solving the Apple side of the equation.
In theory, Catalyst has potential to revive developer interest in building Mac apps, and reverse the trend before it’s too late. Unfortunately, Apple failed to make a good case for it.
If you don’t know what Jira is, be thankful: It’s one of the most loathed tools developers are forced to use every day
To demo such an exciting framework, you’d expect big names like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, which could theoretically bring off-line video playback to the Mac for the first time — as these apps are already offered on Windows. They weren’t there, nor were any other big names of consequence.
Instead, Apple demonstrated its forward-looking technology in the least interesting way imaginable: by showing project tracking software Jira, a racing game nobody’s heard of, and a handful of other forgettable products. If you don’t know what Jira is, be thankful: It’s one of the most loathed project management tools developers are forced to use every day, and it’s an odd choice as a demonstration of compelling apps on the desktop. If anything, Jira should stay in a web browser.
Twitter is the biggest of the apps announced so far, but we already know that its iPad app is a disappointment, especially compared to its defunct macOS app. On other platforms, Twitter pushes its progressive web app, which is much better — and updated on a regular basis.
If Apple couldn’t find a single big name to bring something unique to the Mac with Catalyst, why would any developer use it over the web technologies they already have access to elsewhere? Sure, it might save some time for developers who happen to be building an iPad app already, but developers like Netflix, which need to build for other platforms anyway, will keep using Electron for other apps. To make use of Catalyst, they’d need to add a bunch more work for a half-baked iPad app that runs on desktop.
This Hail Mary arrived too late, and it won’t even satisfy every developer working on Apple platforms. Instagram, for example, has an iPhone app but not an iPad version — so, no Catalyst here.
A better example of this idea can be found in Chromebooks, where Google allows almost any Android app to be used without modification. Want to run Instagram or stream with Spotify’s mobile app? It works as you’d expect, with all of the benefits from the mobile app in tow.
Catalyst shows some promise, but it’s up against harsh business realities. If you’re a company like Slack, it’s cheaper and easier for you to target every desktop platform with Electron, which allows you to get updates out to all of your users faster with one set of code.
It’s great for developers to have more options, but I’d argue that Electron has already eaten native apps whole. As more businesses use it to reach as many customers as possible, it’s more cost-effective, easier to maintain, and it does everything Catalyst does — while building on the existing web codebase.
Catalyst might bring a handful of apps to the Mac, but it’s not the winning play Apple needs. If anything, it’s evidence that Apple will continue to fight against the web becoming the platform of choice — even if it seems the battle is already lost.