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iOS and macOS Integration: Will They Merge at WWDC 2021?

Over the years, many have speculated over the possibility of Apple merging their two popular platforms: iOS and macOS. Microsoft offers touch-compatible Surface devices, and Apple added mouse support to iOS. Apple also delivered the ability for the Mac to run iPad apps on Big Sur. So why not just merge the two into one operating system and achieve the ultimate in iOS and macOS integration?


Apple denies a desire to combine them

Apple’s New M1 iPad Pro

Apple CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly denied any intention to combine the platforms. But recent rumors surfaced that Apple wants to bring them more closely together. The key difference between the older denials and the new rumors is the appearance of the M1 chip in both Macs and iPads. When both a desktop and an iPad are running the same hardware, users start asking “what gives?” Why can’t I run the desktop version of my favorite software on my iPad—especially when iPad apps can now be run on the Mac?


Apple designs for human input 

For years, Apple has made the case that Mac apps are cumbersome to use with a touch interface for any length of time. They’ve called the effect “gorilla arms.” They mean that if you want to be Tom Cruise in Minority Report, then you will get tired in a hurry. 

Mac apps are cumbersome to use with a touch interface for any length of time. Click To Tweet

Consider the experiment that they’ve been running with the Macbook Pro’s Touch bar. It is very difficult to use for more than just a quick tap. The reason is that you can’t exactly keep your eyes on the screen and the Touch bar at the same time. 

When you use your iPhone, you are looking right at it. But most of the macOS interface is designed to have your hands resting on the keyboard and mouse. The iPad, however, uses a philosophy of input that prioritized directly manipulating its controls on the screen. So even though we now have mouse and keyboard compatibility, touch is still the priority. These distinct systems have the opportunity to shine because of their distinctiveness. 


Will Mac apps be cross platform?

Here is where the real possibilities lie. If you could deploy Final Cut Pro on the Mac and have it “morph” on the iPad, I think you’d make a lot of people happy. If the same app could change its “skin” based on the device that it was running on, consumers would be getting a much better value. 

Woman sitting outside at a table editing video on an iPad
Could an iPadOS/iOS and macOS integration mean more seemless media editing?

There’s plenty of functionality that Photoshop on the Mac offers that Photoshop on iOS does not. But developers have always struggled with trying to write two versions of the app for different platforms. I believe that distinct operating systems, with flexible apps, is the path that Apple will pursue. And the main reason is shared hardware. Now that mobile devices and desktop can both ship with 16GB of RAM, the doors will be wide open to bring a whole new generation of apps that can run on either platform. And I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the technology to do it arrive at WWDC 2021.

What do you think? Will we see an iOS and macOS integration on June 7th at WWDC2021?



Reuben Evans
the authorReuben Evans
Reuben Evans is an award-winning screenwriter, Executive Producer at Faithlife Films/Faithlife TV, and a member of the Producers Guild of America. He has produced and directed numerous documentaries and commercials. RED Cameras, Final Cut Pro, and DaVinci Resolve are his tools of choice. Reuben has written for such sites as The Frame.io Insider and is part of the Blade Ronner Media writers network.
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19 Comments

  • Apple and app developers would benefit if one app could work on both Macs and iPads. Hopefully, we’re just waiting for the gap to close between screen technology on Macs and iPads.

    • This doesn’t require a merged OS, just the same APIs for both versions. Note that you can already run iOS apps on macOS Big Sur (M1), without even having to re-compile (although there are limitations and concessions).

      Given my use case, where iPad is mainly a data consumption device, I’m actually against things like spreadsheets and word processing running on a (keyboard-less) tablet.

  • hus, a small pocketable Mac (whatever form factor: clamshell, slider or tablet) would be awesome. Not for heavy work, but the ultimate presentation tool for Keynote and PowerPoint. Because iOS and Mac are not fully compatible (Keynote, for instance). There are even incompatibilities between Mac and Windows (PowerPoint, for instance) and even within Windows and within Mac for different OS or PowerPoint versions. So, the best scenario for having the highest compatibility is to make the presentation on a desktop (or whatever) Mac and then move it to the portable Mac.

    And that is now possible with the new ARM-based Apple Silicon microprocessors with extremely low TDP and thus extended battery life. The Mac in your pocket. Always.

  • The option of screen touch for Macs can make some apps far more responsive, such as Zoom when approving meeting attendees in a meeting waiting room. Music and photo editing software could also benefit from the addition of direct touch interaction. One could argue that Apple should move in the direction of the Microsoft Surface tablets so that iPadPro tablets can be full powered platforms with every MacOS feature entirely intact, while also providing the utility of the touch tablet that need not have a keyboard in the way. If I could choose to run MacOS that’s capable of running tablet apps on my existing iPadPros, I would do so to eliminate numerous problems that iPads have supporting professional audio interface gear and MIDI interfaces.

    • Good points, Mark! I will add that the Microsoft Surface hasn’t wiped out sales of Windows PCs, and likewise, I wouldn’t predict the demise of the Mac by iPads running Mac OS. As good as my iPad setup is with keyboard, mouse, and Apple Pencil, it’s still not as practical to drag that setup around as a MacBook.

      • That’s right. A full spectrum of devices, which happens to include MacOS available on the ultra-compact thunderbolt iPadPros, and touch screens on the MacBookPros and iMacs as options would be a big productivity booster for many of us.

        I happen to have a recent-model Lenovo thunderbolt laptop with high-end Intel processor that I regret needing to purchase because there was no similar 4k touch screen MacBookPro to buy. The business-critical software I use runs on both Windows and MacOS, but happens to be greatly enhanced by a touch screen.

        For long-term value and stability, Macs have always served me better than any canned Windows laptop, but there are enough gaps in the Mac & iPad lineup that other brands have been required to fill in. Those at Apple who think that their sidecar approach is an acceptable substitute for a single stable touch screen laptop are badly mistaken. After trying the disastrous Apple sidecar approach with an iPadPro and MacBookPro, I turned it off and never went back because Apple has baked in far too many security hoops to constantly jump through that sidecar ruins productivity and workflow stability. Just giving us a real touch screen on MacBookPros would have been far, far easier

  • The development of Apple Operating Systems is based on the constant desire for Apple to intrude into your life in every way possible so that they can take more of your money daily. As someone who started with an Apple IIe, then a Mac Plus, and then as a Mac manager, nearly every model after that, including iPhones and iPads, I have become disgusted with how intrusive they are. My iPhone constantly wants me to sign into the App store even though I have no interest in buying anything. They nag me to put my data and photos on their “cloud” even though it’s been hacked numerous times. I view every development they make since Steve had to step down as a personal assault on my finances. They claim to want to protect us from data pirates, but insist on constantly trying to get into your wallet. I continuously have to wonder how long I’ll be able to keep using their products, because the assault never stops. Buy this, rent that, get this upgrade that doesn’t work with much of your software, blame everyone else and oh, here’s a new thousand-dollar toy that doesn’t do anything the older model didn’t, but you need it to look cool to your friends.

    • As someone else who started with a ][e and gets a new toy from them every few years …

      I have never had my iphone bug me about the cloud and such. Look at your settings. However just about everything in IT is incorporated with cloud services now so the best way to get away from using it is to go live in a cave.

      BTW, apple is VERY good about privacy and security. The only headdesk I saw was having the keychain use the cloud right after a breakin, not for the actual security but how it looked. To solve that I just installed another one that used local storage unless I am moving settings from another machine.

  • There will be no merger. The iPad will continue to gain most of macOS functionality until the Mac becomes irrelevant and the sales plummet.

  • iOS = iDiot Operating System. I’ve yet to see a version I liked. I’ve never seen the point of an iPad—the touch screen on my iDiot Phone has never been reliable. I know the reason for this: my hands are dry, and touch screens like a trace of moisture. (Grease will do, another reason I don’t like touch screens—they are grease magnets.) Most hand lotions are, essentially, grease. Now I can get my device to recognize a touch, but I get eyestrain reading the screen.

    Apple has come out with a series of ever lighter, thinner laptops (too light and too thin to be sturdy, but better than an iPad), so I see no need for iPads. As for phones, IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE A PHONE. Stop trying to make it a computer. And while you’re at it, Apple, stop trying to make my computer a phone—or an iPad.

    • I thought I was a grumpy old curmudgeon. I don’t see the point of your post– it doesn’t address merging iOS and macOS at all. It’s just a rant. And your complaints apply to these devices in general, not Apple specifically.

      Never had a problem with the touchscreen. I used to have a similar attitude toward glossy vs. matte screens. I thought glossy touchscreens would be a nightmare, but the only time I notice all the finger smudges is when the screen is off.

      There is some ability to change the font size, but only so much you can do with a small screen. I’ve been getting “Max” models to help with my old-man eyes, but it will eventually be a losing battle.

      Thin/light is a virtue for portable devices, but I never saw the point of it on a desk-bound device, other than aesthetics. The pretty colors, too. I don’t spend a whole lot of time looking at the back side of my devices. Having said that, I have never had an issue with the sturdiness of my iPhones/iPads/MacBook Airs over the years due to their thinness.

      I got in line for the first iPhone because it was the first “phone” that had enough extra features (messaging, camera, mp3 player, calculator, …) so I wouldn’t feel like Batman being weighed down by his toolbelt.

    • When my Mac broke in January 2020 and I was unable to immediately replace it with a Mac that would fulfill my needs, I purchased a new iPad Air 3 on sale from Amazon with 256GB of storage for less than half the price of a Mac. I quickly added the Apple Smart Keyboard and mouse. This mini laptop has been working great for me! True, some of my purchased Mac programs have been out of reach, but I’ve adapted and been pleasantly surprised at how good the iPadOS apps are. While Apple Numbers and GarageBand don’t have all the features of the Mac versions, they are still very powerful iOS apps that I use everyday. I track my finances and other vital information in Numbers for iPadOS, with graphs that update immediately as the data changes and more, I don’t miss the Mac that much. However, when an iOS device goes on the blink and there’s no open Apple store around (like in 2020), then a Mac is your emergency rescue tool. That’s one good reason I recommend anyone with iOS devices to have access to a Mac, even if it’s just 1 Mac for an entire family, just in case.

  • I would hate to get the iOS experienced forced onto my Mac, just as much, as I would hate trying to work with the macOS GUI on an iPad.

    BUT … what I would like is the freedom to choose whatever GUI I want – on whatever hardware I want.
    At the moment, I travel with both an iPad and a MacBook Air – and it feels …. stupid (understatement).

    The smart path for Apple would be an easy to access setting, that swaps between the GUIs whenever you want. That way, I could connect a Mac mini to a large touch display and have a decent GUI for infomedia content, and my iPad could turn into a fullblown laptop when using a keyboard and mouse/trackpad.

  • I use my desktop/laptop vs tablet/smartphone differently, so merging the two isn’t that important to me. In fact, at this point, it’s a hard pass.

    MacOS means large screen, multiple apps and windows, keyboard entry. Many things running in the background. Lots of fast ports to attach terabytes of storage. Touchscreen might be nice, but not necessary for my use case. Performance is the most important feature.

    iOS means a single front-facing task consuming the entire screen. Mostly a consumption, rather than a production, device. Writing large documents or entering/debugging code is not appropriate. Portability, meaning not being tethered to power or peripherals, is the most important feature. I’m willing to tradeoff some performance for time between battery charges.

    If Apple made a “convertible” device (a la Microsoft Surface), this might be an interesting development. iPadPro+keyboard is close, but still feels kludgey.

    Even if Apple decided to merge the UI, there would still need to be underlying differences, thus “AppleOS for iPhone”, “AppleOS for Macintosh”, etc. So, other than branding, it’s where we are today. Just to give you an idea, the MacOS installer is almost 14GB, while the iPhone’s is less than 6GB. If there was a “universal installer”, you’d have to download way more to your iPhone than you’d actually use, and you may not even have enough free memory to do it.

    The current level of integration is already pretty good. iCloud data, including passwords in Keychain, available on any device. Unlocking devices with the AppleWatch instead of entering a password. Opening a Safari tab on a different device. Maps on my iPhone sending turn-by-turn directions to the watch. Lots of others.

  • Running the same app on a mini screen and on a big screen is a terrible idea. I now am obliged, by my bank, to use the same interface on my 27″ screen as someone else on their mini screen. The result is constant useless scrolling and pull down menus. I have seen the same thing on my brokers site. On my favourite suppliers site I could see and understand 68 items at one glance now I am limited to 6 at a time and have to pull down each one before arriving at a choice.

    • I would lay a good bet apple will have a good UI/UX to do it at the OS level. Whether you are on a small screen or a big screen you are ultimately doing the same things (like buying stocks) and the interface can just say “do this if the screen is this size or do that if the screen is that size”. The biggest issue that gets held up when Jobs said doing vertical screen touch all the time was a bad idea, however that feature is popular on windows whether the screen is vertical or mostly horizontal. Just look at all the integrations apple have done between their machines (like starting something on your phone and moving the process to a laptop). It is not really a question of if they will do it but when.