macOS Catalina and the rumoured ARM transition

macOS Catalina has attracted quite a bit of negative sentiment from Mac users. New releases of macOS have had issues before, but we still install them because we love new features, and are confident that bugs will be fixed by an update. This time though, Catalina struggles to make up for launch issues because there’s hardly anything new to get excited about. Instead of features, it delivers some disruptive changes:

  • A new (and questionable) security model, with the sort of popup notifications that Windows Vista was infamous for (and was ironically, mocked by Apple).
  • Dropping 32-bit compatibility – not a problem for me personally because my web development stack is all fully 64-bit. But it prevents some users from updating if they rely on old apps, and large game libraries could be severely impacted.
  • File system – the OS and data partitions are now separated out, which makes sense, but the various tricks that stick it back together only go so far – and things can get confusing inside the Terminal.
  • iTunes replaced by three new Catalyst apps – despite people banging the drum for years that iTunes was bloated and needed breaking up, I find this to be a backwards step. The new apps are dull, soulless affairs, and the local library sync to my iPhone now doesn’t work fully.

On top of this, there are numerous small bugs. Out there on the internet, there are reports of Finder issues, with slow folder updates after basic file operations. When I log back into my MacBook Pro 16 running Catalina, the display brightness jumps up to 100% and True Tone colour correction takes minutes to kick in. Three updates later, these bugs are still there.

So, why release an OS that is arguably a step backwards from Mojave? I had no idea until recently, but a tweet by Steve Troughton-Smith about the rumoured Mac ARM processor transition gave me some insight. He says:

He makes the great point that anyone looking for evidence of an ARM processor transition for the Mac hasn’t been paying attention – it’s there for all to see in the direction macOS has been taking. For example, removing 32-bit app support is the sort of cleanup task that simplifies transitioning to another processor architecture. I suspect the replacement of iTunes is another change driven by a need to remove a large legacy code base.

Thinking through this a bit further, what if Catalina is really a big maintenance release to support an imminent ARM processor transition? A last chance to reshape the system and clean up the big blockers before the code is prepped for release on ARM? It would explain the relative lack of new features, the less-than-ideal security changes, and the bugs in mature parts of the OS.

Going back to my earlier point about Catalina being on it’s third update with unresolved issues, perhaps the answer is also related to the transition. macOS engineers could be too busy to fix them because they have to hit a deadline to support the arrival of new hardware. And time could be running out – Steve also points out that if rumours of ARM Macs arriving in 2021 are true, then WWDC 2020 is when Apple will need to start talking to developers. We will then know for sure what Catalina was really all about.

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