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Apple wants to unify iPad, iPhone, and Mac apps – but will it work?

Microsoft was both lauded and derided for its Universal Windows Platform (UWP). UWP is meant to give developers a way to share code and resources easily between app projects, making it easier to target different hardware like phone, PC, tablets, and Xbox.

UWP is not a "write once, deploy everywhere" model, though in some ways it can be used as such. Nor is it only about phones, which apparently are on the sideline now for Microsoft. UWP is about building a next-generation app platform that can quickly adapt to new hardware paradigms, whether it is Windows Mixed Reality, traditional PCs, tablets, mobile devices, or your living room.

In a new report from Bloomberg, Mark Gurman, a writer who is well known for his accurate Apple leaks, details how the company is attempting to combine "iPhone, iPad and Mac apps to create one user experience."

Let's talk about what that means.

Rumored for late 2018

It is important to note that Gurman's report explicitly states that such a project is still in development:

The plans are still fluid, the people said, so the implementation could change, or the project could still be canceled.

If it goes forward, the project likely won't be announced until summer 2018 with a rollout in a preview that fall, according to Gurman. Apple declined to confirm the report.

While the shift to a more unified app platform is a great move, the idea that Apple will have solved it all out the gate is probably misguided. Of course, without any details about this system, it is too early to speculate on how powerful or flawed it may be.

Instead, I'd like to shift to where Microsoft is right now and going compared to Apple.

Microsoft's unified Core, OS, apps, and shell

Microsoft's UWP will be hitting the three-year mark in late 2018, right around when Apple's first attempt at app unification may debut.

While Microsoft continues to build out APIs and bridges – and more importantly bring legacy Win32 apps to the Microsoft Store – it is also very deep into unifying its user shell experience a.k.a. Composable Shell or CShell.

What exactly IS a Universal Windows Platform (UWP) app?

This difference is massive. While Apple embarks down the same path as Microsoft (and Google too, for that matter), Microsoft is many steps ahead. Here are some examples of how:

  • Windows OneCore – Microsoft successfully unified its kernel and OS core system across devices in 2015.
  • Windows UWP - Microsoft unified its app platform, which runs on Win32 systems (x86, x64), ARM, and Xbox.
  • Windows 10 on ARM - Announced in late 2016, Microsoft this month revealed the first devices running Windows 10 on ARM, so-called Always Connected PCs – a full port of the OS that can run on Qualcomm Snapdragon processors. These support Windows 10 S, Windows 10 Home, and Windows 10 Pro the OS can emulate Win32 applications too.
  • Windows Core OS - As exclusively reported by our Senior Writer Zac Bowden, Microsoft is making Windows 10 modular. Once finished, Windows 10 will look the same, but components like Win32 and telephony support for cellular calls can be added or removed by OEMs. Windows Core OS will also pave the way for a true UWP-version of Windows 10 without any native Win32 support that will eventually supplant Windows 10 S.
  • Windows CShell - With the same kernel, a flexible core, and unified app platform, the last piece is the shell – or user interface (UI) – that itself adapts to the screen. Taking the idea of Continuum to the OS level, CShell lets devices adjust their UIs for different tasks and experiences. A device running full Windows 10 for the desktop would be able to take on a Windows 10 Mobile UI to run in phone-mode. Or, a Windows 10 PC could take on the Xbox UI when in gaming mode. The possibilities are endless.

These tools combined make Windows 10 an OS that can live anywhere, on any device, with any screen size, running any processor. With UWP, the apps can run on all those devices with only minor changes.

It also means there is no Windows 10 Mobile anymore, because what made that OS unique has now been integrated into Windows 10 proper.

Apple has some of this with shared components between iOS and macOS, but its app story is very far behind. Apple has not – to our knowledge – taken any steps to unify its UI across macOS and iOS. There have long been rumors that Apple plans to turn iOS into macOS, including building MacBooks with ARM processors, but those plans have not been confirmed.

Google is also busy combining Android and Chrome OS, but it too faces the same problems and challenges as Microsoft did and now Apple too. All three companies are embarking down the same path, but Microsoft is many steps ahead there, even though it's lagging in the fastest growth area for computing: smartphones.

Apple's advantage is phones

There's no doubt that Apple has a lot going with the iPhone. Not only does the iPhone still get premium apps faster than Android, but the app quality, in general, is higher due to the controlled and limited hardware choices.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of questions about Apple's approach to app unification. Will developers merely port the apps from iOS to macOS? How robust will the tools be? How far along are the APIs?

Microsoft developers have quickly learned that building out a unified platform that seeks to emulate Win32 abilities takes years.

There are also concerns about UX and UI. Specifically, Apple developers who make apps for the iPhone – but not the iPad – will have a hard time scaling up to a 27-inch iMac display. There are a lot of considerations for screen size, type and modality (touch or non-touch) that need to be considered. For instance, adding mouse support – since Macs currently do not support touch screens – is critical and not trivial.

Looking at what Google has attempted with Android apps on Chrome OS, it is evident that "write once, run everywhere" is an idealized, but non-practical dream. Sure, it can work, but it is far from perfect.

Microsoft has already learned a lot of these hard lessons going back to Windows 8. Putting phone apps on a PC is merely not enough. I wrote earlier this year about the Microsoft Store refocusing on premium desktop apps and games and that is what happened.

Microsoft may focus on desktops with UWP — here's why you should care

Merely letting users run an iOS version of Instagram on a full Mac PC may seem like a simple solution, but long-term the novelty wears off. It's also not clear that iOS apps – the majority of which are phone-focused – have a purpose on a desktop or laptop PC. For instance, it's not evident that many people on desktops utilize the Uber app for Windows 10 – why would that be different for Apple?

The same problem that existed for Microsoft – who wants to run phone apps on a PC? – applies to Apple. Microsoft fixed that by doubling down on desktop apps and by bringing classic Win32 programs to the Microsoft Store. But is Apple trying to fix its desktop problem by running phone apps?

Unifying is hard

I see a lot of people giving Apple a lot of room here, saying "Oh, they will get it right." But none of this is easy. Microsoft has had a learning curve, as has Google. All three companies are struggling with a shifting computing world where device usage and experiences are changing.

Microsoft has its Win32 legacy to contend with for business and enterprise. It's the company's Achilles heel – it is what makes Windows 10 PCs secure, but also what holds it back. Apple is in the same situation with iOS. It is arguably the company's most forward-looking and modern OS, but Apple will have a problem with macOS completely stagnating for features and apps.

Can running iOS apps on a MacBook Pro fix the problem of users who are unhappy with its recent redesign and lack of "pro" features? It won't hurt it, but it's not apparent that it will solve Apple's seemingly reliance on just selling phones (60 percent of Apple's revenue is from the iPhone alone).

Microsoft's problem is palpable. Without a phone, its mobile game is weak. While PC sales are rebounding, and the Surface line is kickstarting a revival, there still needs to be a phone-ish device on the market. We're expecting sometime in 2018 a new generation of foldable hardware from Microsoft, meant to leapfrog current smartphones, but there are just as many questions there as there are for Apple's app strategy for macOS.

What the future of Windows 10 will look like. #AskDanWindows Episode 35

The takeaway here is not that Apple may do this better than Microsoft, but that both companies face the same problem. Does there need to be a winner? Not really. Both companies have thrived for the last 15 years, and there is no reason to think that will change.

It's more interesting that Microsoft, Google, and Apple see OS convergence as a solution, not something to be avoided.

Daniel Rubino
Executive Editor

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

  • As long as the isheeps believe on it. They will be like the first one to invent it.
  • not only the so called "first to invent" but also "first to be innovative in the market" as if Microsoft and Samsung haven't already been doing this since 2014.
  • As long as the Winsheep believe in whatever it is they believe in.  
  • which is ???
  • Yes, please, tell me... I don't know what I am supposed to believe anymore regarding Windows. I am a sheep with no dog to herd me.
  • Exactly.. and because of the developer mindset in regards to Apple, this will work. And in two years time apples unified app implementation will be far more used and probably light years ahead of UWP..
    I'm a big Microsoft follower and write in c# .Net myself, but there is absolutely no denying that Microsoft in general is too slow!..
  • So true, and that's what stings the most. Also in apples favor is that they own 100% of the ecosphere. Only apple makes Apple products, so integration is that much easier for them. I'll just sit in the corner with my Lumia 950....
  • "Exactly.. and because of the developer mindset in regards to Apple, this will work. And in two years time apples unified app implementation will be far more used and probably light years ahead of UWP"
    But will that change the shift for MBP sales and adoption, which is now favoring Surface and PC 2-in-1s? Apple's laptop/desktop problem goes deeper than just not having phone-apps to install.
  • Sorry Dan. Apple just simply announcing this is way ahead of Microsoft. UWP will not be adopted like you hope. Any developer who was contemplating UWP, may now have changed their mind. Shoot didn't even Microsoft with their IOS and Android apps that are not even UWP?
  • @Rubino "It also means there is no Windows 10 Mobile anymore, because what made that OS unique has now been integrated into Windows 10 proper." I understand what you are saying, but unless you understand W10M to be nothing more than a brand/marketing name, this is a misleading way of communicating what is actually happening. It is detrimental to gaining a correct understanding of how Windows is evolving. If W10M is integrated into W10 proper, then W10M is still there! It's not going away! W10M is just part of W10, which is in fact no different from how things have always been since 2015, ever since W10M and W10 were released! Using WCOS (Windows Core OS), if an OEM assembles a Windows distribution without Win32, then they'll effectively have put together what we currently call W10M. It will be exactly what W10M is today (with a few improvements like CShell). We just won't call it that! At least from a technical point of view, this paints a far more accurate picture.
  • @Rubino Oh yeah, and IMHO your reporting on WCOS (Windows Core OS) is also somewhat incomplete. WCentral's entire explanation of WCOS is based on the trait modularity. The problem is that W10 has always been modular. W10M, W IoT and Holographic are all assembled from the same main source branch. It's already modular! The actual difference is the people to whom this trait of modularity, and the flexibility that comes with it, will be accessible! So far that has only been accessible to MS' OS developers. With WCOS this will also become accessible to OEMs. Where that flexibility previously existed only up until compile time, it will now be available up until deployment time. That is a more accurate way of describing WCOS. If MS were to take this even further, we'd maybe get to a point where Windows becomes very Linux like, where anybody can put together their own Windows distro. I don't know if that's where MS is going with this, but IMHO it's at least a good way of thinking about the situation.
  • More vapourware from MSFT..... ehhh... wait this is about Apple.... They will deliver their vision way before MSFT!!!!
  • I don't really see how Microsoft is way ahead in this battle.  Apple actually has a thriving app store AND Apple has a mobile OS.  Microsoft has neither.
  • Yes those points are written in the article, did you even read it?
  • Great point. Without apps to run on smaller, more mobile devices, UWP will be quickly passed by Apple's unification attempt.
  • If it already has a thriving App store mobile OS, then why do they need to combine iOS with macOS at all? Are they trying to bring mac features to iOS or iOS Apps to mac?
    iOS is already good, so it means they are planning to bring iOS Apps to mac.
    But Why? Maybe because they want to push their Laptop and Desktop sales.
    So putting a touch screen on mac and saying that you can also download iOS app on mac will help? I personally don't think so. UI of mac is not touch friendly; apps would need to consider mouse keyboard and screen sizes etc.; desktop already has a browser; and next era is of web apps.
    That was the easiest way, like that of Chromebook. Just run phone apps using an emulator. And Apple probably would do that. But what's next then? Combine watchOS and tvOS too? Point is, it has to either a short term plan, like emulators, or a long term plan, like the road MS took.
    Actually making a new OS, Core and Shell is no joke. That's what the article was about.
    And yes, Microsoft is much better in software, and way ahead in this game.
  • "More vapourware from MSFT.."
    Versus the rumored vaporware of Apple? Stay on target, man.
  • It isn't vapourware any longer. Microsoft stopped supporting UWP. Their unification idea failed and they are now just packaging desktop apps in the store.
  • It'll work...they have some early ones and wouldn't come out to say something like that to the public. As always Microsoft stupidly innovates and Apple smartly and carefully execute with perfection. I guess that'll be the time I join the iworld.
  • So, now running a phone app on a PC is OK because Apple did it? You folks are losing me here. And even though it's not really working for Google, either, this is somehow different?
  • This right here. It only works for apple now!! If the lumias were priced at a 1000$ maybe it would've attracted the isheeps. Maybe that's why the surface line up is attracting so many of them. Maybe it'll work after all, if the surface phone is over priced. They just like to show they got MOOOOOONNNEEEYYYYY. (The isheeps I mean)
  • Microsoft only sells a few million a year. They aren't converting many.
  • iPad apps are powerful, clip studio paint pro was recently released on iPad pro with the full features set as the windows version. It is a professional complex app.
  • This is a bit of a revelation for CSP users AND the iPad Pro (especially the 12.9" version). It strongly suggests a way forward for a unified Apple environment. Maybe Apple should hire these Japanese programmers! Imagine a Surface Studio-type iMac with the Apple Pencil: Wow.
  • I don't think the phone apps would be a huge success on a MBP or iMac.  However MacOS apps on iPad Pro would bring back alot of artists, software developers and some steam gamers to Apple.  Including students. I came close to switching from 30 years of MSFT faith to Apple when my 4th surface pro 2017 had to be returned for screen issues. However I staid with MSFT because windows 10 is the only platform that makes it possible to take hand written notes, code with powerful IDE, use very specialised school apps such as MATLAB and game from my huge steam library, all on one device. Also your review of the yoga 920 guided me in the right direction. Again when Apple makes it possible to use desktop apps on iPad pro, 80% of those use cases will be covered and MSFT inability to provide a polished and reliable experience will ensure people move on. When you rely on a device to take notes in class reliability and a bug less experience come first.  Having to return a unit, not being able to write notes because onenote cannot sync properly, or running out of battery during an exam because win defender decided Today's the day can give you emotions and make you switch platform without regrets. I hope MSFT improves reliability and Apple nails their universal app plateform.  More competition makes for great black Fridays!!!  
  • Yes. There was never anything wrong with it ever. Apple will not show this off until it is working in some fashion enought to know it won't be an embarassment and then make it available shortly after and look competent doing it. I've felt that MS gets shafted without any consideration for the actual work they do but more and more the contact surfaces of their products are getting rougher and less pleasing to interact with. MS needs someone with some basic design notions to clean up the os UX and general app templates. Apple invests heavily in getting the interactive components of their devices more or less right. QI charging years late = not a problem. Wireless payments being the only thing NFC can be used for on the OS = not a problem. Not implementing fast charging still = not a problem. They've set their priorities and more or less have had the right ones to grow thier market. MS is learning a lot from them... slowly. Hopefully they pull another surface device which captures peoples imaginations again. Really hoping MS does something great soon.
  • .
  • Except Android starting doing scaling apps back in 2011 with Honeycomb. Well before UWP. Now they can work on a wide variety of form factors including wearables, auto and TV.
  • Technically yes Google did it first, that's only UI scaling though and it doesn't mean that the content makes best use of the available display space. A UWP not only scales to fit the display, it scales to fit the window size (on desktops, laptops and tablets when the devices aren't in tablet mode) and also rearranges the content to make best use of the available display space.
  • Exactly that's like a static html page that isn't responsive vs one that has been tuned to scale and rearrange the content to fit what formfactor its on. Sure the first one technically works but the second one has the better user experience.
  • Bleached clearly hasn’t used ChromeOS. It’s scaling in 4K screens is atrocious. And Android Store still isn’t available on all devices planned for 2017. Google are way behind technically (even though I really enjoy ChroneOS)
  • Never said anything about ChromeOS. It doesn't scale well though. I am well aware, it is even worse than Windows which is starting to get better.
  • An Android developer could create completely different UIs for each screen size and that was in 2011. It wasn't just scaling.
  • Yes, they could but a UWP scales the UI to fit the device's screen size anyway i.e. the news app on Windows 10 Mobile is the same one that runs on Windows 10 it's just that the UI scales to fit the phone screen, you can see this if you run the app in landscape on W10M.
  • How is that any different? Change the DPI and an Android app will scale too.
  • Microsoft's Edge browser works beautifully for mouse, touch or keyboard. Notification, Pro apps, AAA gaming and a good flexible browser is all a desktop or laptop needs.
  • You know. Honestly, I'd be happy for them.  My only pain point would be their inevitable marketing selling this development as their brainchild.  I realize Microsoft's past is funny in this respect, but talking about modern times... Microsoft just isn't given its due credit, particularly around innovation whether or not it leads to failure.  It's like the new Magic Leap AR glasses.  I don't suppose credit means much these days. But still, its the principle!  :D  /bitterrantover
  • Right ipad pro? Living images? (even though that was technically Nokia) Both examples (im sure there's more) of concepts that apple marketted as their own concept when it was a msft platform first.
  • 'Face recognition that really works'... It works well on my 950, and sometimes it works on my friends iphone... Apple still claims it as their invention...
  • The biggest problem is that people see the phone as the key component of UWP, I don't. The whole idea of a UWP is that it runs everywhere, from the phone right up to a games console so remove the phone and UWP is still relevant. Also with Windows 10 on ARM and, supposedly, a foldable Surface tablet UWP will be even more relevant. Apple, however have a long way to go as traditionally their app stores are separate across platforms so not only do they need to make sure apps scale properly across devices of all form factors they need to unify the stores as well.
  • To use UMP you need to install windows core. who will do that on mobiles???????????????????? Phones sells more than computers and they are replaced more often so this segment is very importent. Apps from Android or IOS app stores will not come to UMP. who will  and why bother rewriting the apps for UMP (yet another experement from Microsoft)?  
  • You didn't read my comment completely, did you. It's UWP not UMP and UWP based apps work across W10M, Windows 10 (32 and 64-bit), Windows 10 on ARM and the Xbox One.
  • Ok, I ment UWP and I was reflecting about you saying UWP idea to run everywhere. Excluding phones (and werables) means the apps wont be used acrross all devices like as the case for Android. If I want to develop an app to be used on all devices then Android still the choice since I will need to write two versions of the app if I want to use UMP, Android version for phones and wearables and one for UWP. I Think for Apple the case will be easier than for Microsoft, they are committed to their products and there are a wide base of app developers who are willing to follow whatever path Apple choose.  
  • You still aren't getting it, UWP isn't platform independent so a UWP will NEVER run on Android or iOS. A UWP app will ONLY run on Windows 10 Mobile while it still exists, Windows 10, Windows 10 on ARM and Xbox One.
  • It's UWP and you don't need to install Windows Core. You don't' understand what you are talking about nor the terms you are using.
  • You are not getting the point I was trying to explain.  Who will bother writing for a platform covering part of devices while there are other alternatives working on all??
  • OK, name one development platform that works on ALL devices regardless of the OS?
  • I didn't say regardless of the OS, I said a platform for all devices. in Windows case no phones and no wearables.
    if I am to develop UWP app which is supposed to share info between different type of devices then I will also need to write android app for phones and wearables while if I develop Andriod app then I don't need to bother learning other platform since Android covers all types of devices.
    Apple cover case there are wide range of Apple devices so you don't need to learn another platform either and that's why developers will help to unify the Apple platform faster than Microsoft.  
  • We've had the Win10 core available on our phones for several years now, at least for the 30 million or so forward thinking Windows phone users.
  • You have OneCore on your phone, not Windows Core. You're not using or understanding these terms correctly.
  • Your first sentence pretty much sums it up. The majority of people do see their phone as their primary device. Without a phone and a healthy app store, things will not change.
  • You are correct brother
  • Does not matter where UWP runs. There isn't enough Developers that want to use it for their apps. Unfortunately, Dan's write up here is sounding a little like Jason Ward. And, we all know what happened to the relevance of Jason's Windows phone articles and the hopes of Windows Mobile succeeding.
  • Well, I have a desktop with a keyboard and mouse and two 1920x1200 monitors. UWP means nothing to me on the Desktop.. I do everything through WIn32 apps and the Edge Browser. However, when I need to get directions to a place, check my account balances, send a message, check emai, send email, when I'm looking for a word/phrase translation, making a call, taking a photo, sharing a photo, streaming a video, listening to music, generating VPN encryption codes, checking my schedule, using a calculator, making a conversion, checking a shopping lists or a todo lists..... well I use my phone... and Microsoft has decided that it doesn't want to help me with any of those activities, becuase it's dropped UWP for phone devices and is dropping mobil. So all this UWP on other platforms/formats is completely irrelevant to me... and I suspect the large number of Android/Apple users agree. Surface Hub, Surface Tablet, XBox, mixed reality... that stuff doesn't mean anything to me... I'm too busy using technology to be really productive... and I do it on the go on a device that fits in my pocket... You MIcrosoft apologist can spew all day..... Microsoft's dropped me in the grease by dropping development on Mobil. Once I embrace someone else's Mobil platform, I don't really care what Microsoft is doing with UWP on their own platforms. Remember Mobil First.. Cloud First.... they should have stayed the course.. 
  • However, when I need to get directions to a place, check my account balances, send a message, check emai, send email, when I'm looking for a word/phrase translation, making a call, taking a photo, sharing a photo, streaming a video, listening to music, generating VPN encryption codes, checking my schedule, using a calculator, making a conversion, checking a shopping lists or a todo lists..... well I use my phone...
    I can do all this from my desktop, from the comfort of the big display and full keyboard.  Unlike you, I didn't pigeonhole my devices into specific roles.  My phone does some torrent downloading, some office editing, IRC chat etc.  My desktop also does mail, Instant messaging, maps and directions, I've even used it to upload pictures to instagram which I've edited using desktop photo editing tools (that was when InstaPic was still around).  I look forward to the day when I can do as much phone tasks on my PC and PC tasks on my phone because that will be the day I will no longer be tied to a desk or forced to use a small fiddly touchscreen.  Both form factors have ergonomic compromises but as much as possible, I do not wish to be stuck on one form factor for a particular task.
  • We didn't need a Crystal ball to know that. If Ms and qualcomm keep working together Ms will dominate again.
  • Here are the two things Apple has going for it: loyal developer support & steadfast commitment. The developers will jump through hoops to make this work for Apple. Also, Apple doesn't abandon many products. For these reasons, I think this would be successful even it would take some time to get it right.
  • Exactly, Microsoft didn't get there overnight either, UWP took time to get right and the same will happen with Apple and unifying their apps as well.
  • When did Microsoft get UWP right? It is still a mess and unable to replace Win32.
  • No one said it would replace Win32 therefore Microsoft did get UWP right!!!
  • Nope. It is supposed to replace Win32 for sure. Surface phone is even rumored to not have Win32 or legacy code. App store only.
  • They basically abandoned macOS and their laptops. No real innovation or care for years now. Sure you can get one. But its severely neglected. 
  • "UWP is about building a next-generation app platform that can quickly adapt to new hardware paradigms, whether it is Windows Mixed Reality, traditional PCs, tablets, mobile devices, or your living room. " This sentence is why I am constantly harping on why Microsoft must focus on UWP and which is what annoys the heck out of me because they aren't visibly focusing on UWP. ."All three companies are embarking down the same path", (Many of us saw this coming years ago) "but Microsoft is many steps ahead there, even though it's lagging in the fa