Desktop Apps Ain't What They Used to Be

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 4 min read
Desktop Apps Ain't What They Used to Be

Quick story time…

I use a Mac app called Mimestream at work to manage my email. It's fast, minimal, and supports notifications for new messages. I use it because I like doing email in an app, not a browser.

This revelation surprises a lot of people at my work. Literally no one else I've talked to uses a native email app on their work computer. Windows or Mac user, it doesn't matter, email happens in Chrome (they do use apps on phones, of course) "Why would you get an app when you can do this one their site?" is a common type of question I get. It often sounds like it is an inconvenience to have to install an app.

And it's not just email, almost everything we do has a native app, everyone just uses the browser. Document management happens in Google Docs, which could be installed as a PWA, but no one does. Project management happens in a mix of Jira, Monday, and a few other apps, but we all use the browser for these. Design happens in Figma, and as far as I can tell, it's about half and half between people who have a bookmark and those who use the desktop app.

Love it or hate it, the web is not some fallback solution for a lot of people, it's the default.

The Consistency of Native Apps

One thing that comes up a lot when people complain about Electron apps is that they don't use standard system controls, which causes confusion. While I do sympathize with this, and the native controls are indeed easy to understand, I think we deify them a bit much and overestimate how many of our favorite Mac apps use them.

Here's a screenshots from some a few popular native Mac apps:

Clockwise from top left: Things, Reeder, iStat Menus, Craft

All of those are great native Mac apps, but they're using custom UI elements all over the place. Things has custom everything, Reeder has an iPad-style interface, Craft's preferences window does not follow macOS conventions, and iStat Menus has some native-ish things with plenty of custom stuff too.

On this week's ATP episode, Casey Liss referred to 1Password 7 as a "Mac-assed Mac app," but what part of this UI is using Mac conventions or stock UI? It's all custom (something Marco did mention).

Further, how is the above image to dramatically more recognizable as a native Mac app compared to the new version?

A kinda funny  thing I didn't notice until I took the screenshots: people have mentioned Electron is the reason someone was able to get cut off text in the new app, but look at the search result counter in the 1Password 7 screenshot…it's cut off 😂

Oh, and even in the most native part of the app, preferences, there's weird behavior around spacing and a mystery gap that has a hover state but does not seem to do anything.

This isn't me ragging on 1Password, it's genuinely one of my favorite apps, I'm simply pointing out that this buggy behavior is rightly identified as a bug, but I bet people would be saying this is "just how Electron is" if it was happening in the new app.

Where Do Native Desktop Apps Sit Today?

I think native apps on the desktop are just having a hard go of it in the past decade. Like I said at the top, I personally prefer them most of the time, but while my colleagues' docks are basically Chrome or Safari and a couple other small apps, my dock is stacked with what I consider great apps. I use Things and Nova and Sketch and Safari and Final Cut, all of which are widely considered to be great Mac apps and great macOS citizens. But I also use Visual Studio Code, Slack, Obsidian, Figma, and 1Password 8; they're all Electron apps and they're all, in my opinion, pretty good or even great as well.

Ultimately, I think that in a world where most people do the bulk of their work in a web browser and who need to be convinced why they should install another app, the argument over native vs non-native apps on the Mac is more academic than practical these days. Yeah, maybe an Electron app is going to be bad, but you should really use it and see how it's bad before jumping ship. Likewise, an app being native doesn't mean it will always been fast, lean, and reliable…the Music app for macOS says hello.

P.S. I love the ATP guys, I just thought their conversation was representative of many convos going on in the Apple tech space this week.