What's the Problem With Old But Excellent Mac Apps?

Tyler Hall wrote about “Half-Assed Mac Apps” the other day.

His argument goes like this: Catalyst made it easy to deploy iPad apps to the Mac. But iPad apps don’t make the best experience on Mac. Users end up with more apps, but a lot of them being “half-assed” Catalyst ports.

That post in turn was a reaction to Riccardo Mori’s “A brief reflection on Mac software stagnation”, where Riccardo opens with the question: “what is the newest application you have installed that turned out to be so useful and well-made it’s now part of your essential tools?”

I wouldn’t know if Catalyst is the problem. I think I don’t have any Catalyst app in my library at all. Except the default macOS apps like Reminders and Stocks, if my memory serves me well and these are indeed Catalyst apps.

But I also don’t have any “new” apps, which in Riccardo’s sense doesn’t mean a new purchase in my library, but a new app on the marketplace.

Maybe because I’m not purchasing a lot of apps in general?

And then I don’t understand what the problem is, for which Catalyst might be a cause or contributing factor. What’s wrong with non-new apps?

The opposite of “new” is an app like BBEdit. It’s around for longer than Mac OS X. If you’re a happy BBEdit user, are you in the market for any replacement?

Riccardo’s question is if something became part of your toolkit. So if you don’t miss a tool, you’d have to replace an old one.

What do people do?

  • Text editors: I’ve grown up with TextMate on the Mac because that’s what all the cool Ruby on Rails devs including DHH used when I got my first Mac. I had absolutely no reason to switch for over a decade. Eventually, Emacs came along for different reasons and took over, so I’m not using TextMate for months nowadays. But I wasn’t looking for a replacement.

  • Email: There were cool email clients in the past. Never bought a single one of them, though, because Mail.app was fine. Now they are gone, or their start-up company purchased by Google. – Oh, that was a decade ago, already?!

  • Web browsing: There’s no real market for a new browser engine. So apps with existing engines, like a privacy-focused fork of Firefox or Chromium? That has been done, and why do it again? Sounds like a saturated market.

  • Visual anything editing: The “Affinity” apps that can replace Adobe’s are great, but hardly new. It probably was tough getting into that space, but they carved a niche into what was a behemoth’s monopoly. Sketch did something similar, also quite some time ago. (Figma, a web app, competes with Sketch now, but it’s not a Mac app.) Blender, Godot – excellent open source apps that can be alternatives to the big players in the field, but neither are they dedicated Mac apps, nor are the projects new. Here, I notice we also get more cross-platform apps because that apparently pays better.

The more I think of this, the more I find Riccardo’s criteria for new-ness is rather weird, because where the big fish swim, small fish need time to succeed, and then they’re not new-enough anymore to count. Or there’s no big fish, yet, but I don’t know any such niche.

On top, I don’t know what y’all are purchasing all the time, a prerequisite to make looking back on one’s purchase history such a disappointment. Riccardo is not happy about something, and I don’t understand what or why. Is it just existential fear for the Mac? Or is he genuinely unhappy with the tools in his toolkit? Which are these?

My days are boring: I spend 80% of my time in Xcode, the rest in Emacs or an image editor. (And then I spend another 80% of my time in Firefox because I forget to account for non-work-time and research.)

What is there for me to buy, and why?

For example, I am indeed a user of Affinity Designer etc. for 2 years or so, to do some tasks that I don’t have to do often, but for which I now have a tool if needed. That’s how little I truly need. I had enough before and now I have enough plus a little luxury. Hardly life-changing. I could live without these apps again. But I wouldn’t have a replacement. So are they even part of my toolkit, strictly speaking?

All in all, the Mac app landscape appears to be in good shape. At least when you look at beloved and established apps that once were new kids on the block, like Ulysses and Bear, for example.

One might say the Mac indie dev scene has entered a cycle of maturity. Less shiny new inventions, more catering to customers over the course of years?

Maybe because the Mac user base isn’t small anymore, either, so apps are competing in a much larger market and fall by the wayside all to easily.

Maybe disruption requires more discontent. I personally want to continue to improve writers’ workflows in the coming decade and innovate in that space. But it’s not like the current state of apps makes writing impossible. The stuff that exists is good. We can make it better, but there’s no pressure.

Now I want to hear from you – do you disagree? I’m so stuck in my daily work routine of creating apps that I’m not a good customer of apps. So I don’t quite understand the problem. Please share your takes, on the web or in the comments below. I’ll then link to whatever I am made aware of.


Update 2022-03-06: Here’s a collection of things I gatheres from a lot of comments on HN when this post briefly hit the front page:

  • Grievances:
    • Perfectly fine Mac apps become Electron apps. Am not naming names, though. Keep in mind that the HN audience is comprised of people that don’t like this kind of stuff for nerdy reasons, which may or may not overlap with your customer base and their needs, though.
    • “Perfection is not a good business model.” (Source) Yeah, that could also factor into overall market changes, though it’s unlikely a motivation for dev teams to do what they do. Consider this a comment on the aggregate or macro scale.
  • Mentions of utilities that are more like passive boons:
    • Apps like Bartender (which I also use btw) that alter the system a bit.
    • F.lux to remove blues after dusk way more aggressively and effectively than Night Shfit.
    • TextSniper (Affiliate link because I love to use the app every day) – OCR for screenshots
    • More in this HN comment
  • An observation sub-thread that resonates with me on HN is: developers follow the money, but still when the Mac was niche, it seems that more expensive apps keps the lights on for dev teams just fine. That’s kind of odd.
  • A commenter shared their list of key apps: https://oinam.fyi/digital/apple/
  • A good summary of the HN sentiment: “Almost everything else [besides BBEdit] I use is either free, cross-platform or Electron-based, or a web app.”

A question I’d love someone else to answer (because I’m not the right person for that job):

Anybody have a list of these so called “old but excellent” Mac apps?

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