Big Sur Beta: A Developers Opinion & Why I’m Worried for the future of macOS

Tiffany Abraham
Jul 25 · 12 min read

I made the impulsive decision to download and install Big Sur on my primary computer, so you don’t have to.

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In this blog, I compare the design language to Catalina while predicting a grim possible future of macOS. We’ll discuss the implications of the transition to ARM for developers. We’ll go into the consequences of Apple’s walled garden, and their affinity for closed-systems like iOS. Finally, we’ll take a look at the reasons this all could paint a grim picture for the future of pro macOS users.

OS X is Dead — ARM is Coming

On June 22, 2020, Apple announced a significant bombshell at WWDC 2020: Apple will be switching from Intel X86 processors to Apple Silicon ARM processors over the next two years. During that same conference, they announced that macOS X is finally, after 20 years, at the end of its road. There’s a new macOS on the horizon: MacOS 11 Big Sur.

As soon as I heard that, I jumped onto Apple’s Developer site, and downloaded the Big Sur Developer Beta installer.

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As the computer completed the final restart of the install process, I heard a sound I haven’t heard for a long time: the glorious startup chime blaring, accompanied by the white glow of the Apple logo on the black background.

Immediately upon seeing the home screen, I see the drastic design language changes. It’s a shock to my system after being used to macOS X Catalina’s modern-yet-familiar design language.

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Design Language: Incohesively Neumorphic

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Neumorphism..? Kind Of.

A big focus for Big Sur’s design is neumorphism. Neumorphism combines flat design and skeuomorphism. A lot of elements appear ‘cleaner’, utilizing drop shadows and transparency to create depth. Neumorphism mimics real-life objects. It breathes life into a clean UI, adding a physical element to the flat UI paradigm.

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Apple missed the mark in my opinion, choosing a low contrast design, sacrificing useability; and clashing iOS 6/7 style elements with other neumorphic elements.

Hey Apple: Pick a design language, and stick with it.

A lot of icons clash. Neumorphism consists of flat elements, with realistic textures and shadows. They seem to forget to follow their design language, tacking together, clunky/dated skeuomorphic components with modern neuromorphic/material elements. It’s a haphazard attempt at creating a cleaner UX/UI; dated skeuomorphic elements are jumbled together with neumorphic designs, ultimately resulting in an incohesive, somewhat chaotic design.

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Here’s a perfect example of a clashing design. The icons look like they belong on iOS 5, sitting right next to neumorphic/material icons. If you haven’t seen the hideous System Preferences battery menu..I’m sorry. I’m speechless by its ugliness and the fact somebody signed off on that horrid design to be released.

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Big Sur — Ugly battery icon

Big Sur vs. Catalina Design Comparison

Big Sur’s design language, at first, seems pretty foreign to me in comparison to the more conventional flat design of OSX. The UI/UX starts to grow on me as I use Big Sur more, but the choice to implement skeuomorphic iOS 6/7 style elements…is not a good one. It’s quite apparent that Apple’s trying to make the design language more like iOS. Many of the sliders look suspiciously like they’re designed for touch. Just looking at this control center, with iOS-Esque sliders, makes me want to touch the screen. I’ve heard that same sneaking suspicion, that Apple may move to a touch interface for macOS, from a variety of tech sites, such as The Verge.

Let’s take a look at the ‘control center,’ compared to Catalina’s menus:

Big Sur Control Center vs. Catalina Menu Controls

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OSX Catalina volume slider

Above, you can see Big Sur’s addition of simple icons next to dropdown menu options, like the Sound Output. The implementation of new icons brings some life into the otherwise text-only dropdown.

Control Center — My favorite addition to the OS

My absolute favorite addition to Big Sur is the control center. I absolutely love the functionality packed into a single, beautiful menu. Notice the proper implementation of Big Sur’s new design: rounded corners, creating multiple layers with varying transparency to create depth and the increased use of the user’s preferred accent color. Every setting you need to access somewhat frequently is right there. The Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Volume options are only one click away now. There’s also the somewhat redundant addition of display/keyboard brightness control, which is already available on the touch bar. Nevertheless, I found myself using the control center for brightness more often than I used the touch bar.

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Control Center is a welcome improvement from Catalina’s separate dropdowns for Bluetooth, volume, and network settings.

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Catalina — Menu bar
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Do not disturb is no longer hidden at the top of the notification menu, tucked away off-screen until you scroll to reveal it. It’s literally out of view with nothing to let the user know it’s off-screen…good riddance.

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Catalina — Inconveniently hidden menu for do not disturb

Side-note: Notice how out-of-place the new slider looks compared to the old one:

Big Sur Sliders — They Belong on a Touch Screen.

As I mentioned prior, although the new menu sliders may be aesthetically pleasing, they look out of place on a non-touchscreen. It’s like they took iOS sliders…and just slapped them into Big Sur. Their functionality is hampered by having to click and drag a long distance. Sometimes I had to click and drag twice because once would’ t move the slider all the way. I almost touched the screen late one-night, my half-asleep brain seeing the touch-enticing slider on the MacBook in front of me. We’ll get into the implications of this move towards iOS later on.

The design implementation is, visually, very slick. Again, the use of transparency, minimalist icons, and rounded corners — beautiful presentation, lackluster functionality.

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Big Sur — volume slider
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Big Sur — Sliders

Catalina Sliders

Looking at the Catalina menu dropdowns after using Big Sur, is jolting. It’s clear the design of Catalina is dated and honestly, kind of ugly, after seeing Big Sur’s implementation. But they did one, crucial, thing right: they used proper sliders.

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Catalina — Sound
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Catalina — Volume Slider

The menu bar and windows both utilize transparency to create depth and push for a more minimalist design. Again, Big Sur is attempting to use neumorphism. One aspect they did pretty well with is the translucent windows with the user’s preferred accent color and smooth rounded corners are pretty consistent throughout…unlike a lot of other design elements in Big Sur.

Transparent menu bar is a welcome change

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Big Sur — Menu Bar is no longer opaque white/black.

Since the menu is continuously visible when not in full-screen mode (in both OSX and Big Sur), it’s a welcome change to make it fully transparent. A simple change, it declutters the screen, as it doesn’t grab your attention as often as the previous opaque menu bar did.

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Big Sur — Transparent Menu Bar

Catalina menu bar will not be missed.

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Catalina — Menu bar and home screen
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Big Sur — Volume Menu

I like the addition of icons next to dropdown menu options, like the Sound Output above. The implementation of new icons brings some life into the otherwise text-only dropdown.

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The new windows are quite lovely to look at, a stark contrast to OS X windows, which are beginning to look a bit dated.

Notification center looks fantastic — Another Win For Apple

Along with the control center, Apple nailed the notification center and widgets. The minimalist design looks fantastic, no more grey background obstructing the quite stunning dynamic wallpaper. Your eye goes directly to the softly rounded notifications and widgets, unlike my experience with Catalina’s somewhat cluttered notification center. Like the menu bar, merely removing visual clutter like a solid background, can completely change the design’s visual effect.

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Notification Center Catalina(L) vs. Big Sur(R):

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Notification center, Catalina vs. Big Sur

Future of macOS: The Walled Garden & An Uncertain Future for Developers

The move to this universal design language, with the transition to ARM, leaves me a bit…worried, for the future of macOS. Now don’t get me wrong; the move away from X86, accompanied by this new macOS, is really exciting. It’s quite clear that Apple wants to make MacOS more and more similar to iOS/iPad OS. For developers who work with primarily macOS, iOS, and iPadOS — the move to a single standard has definite potential.

Right now, Apple-focused developers have to push thru the complexity of all the different standards (SwiftUI vs. Catalyst, etc.), as well as the core methods for making applications across the Apple product lineup (macOS, iOS, iPadOS). With a more concise and versatile way to develop apps across platforms, it’ll save a lot of developers the headache of otherwise making, and re-making, apps for each platform.

Developer’s Mixed Opinion

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Source

I’ve heard mixed feedback from developers because many of us work outside of Apple’s walled garden (primarily made of pretty closed-systems). What’s going to happen to all my applications that are built using Objective-C, Electron, Flutter, and React Native? Will everything on Mac eventually look like the boiler-plate iOS/iPad apps.

Just take a look at all the ugly Catalyst apps, unsuccessfully attempting to emulate touch with a trackpad/mouse for a touch-focused UX/UI — Spoiler: they look out-of-place, butchered, iOS apps, and function horribly.

Let’s take a look at the silicon elephant in the room: ARM is fundamentally different from X86. Although Apple says it’ll be a smooth transition, I can’t help but worry a lot of my developer friends and I. I predict a lot of our time will be spent frustratingly trying to port apps to ARM. I foresee headaches from troubleshooting complex bugs and having to rebuild huge parts of codebases to work around ARM’s limits. I think I’ll be seeing a lot of missing/unusable dependencies and a lot of broken industry-specific apps/plugins.

Closed-systems, Right to [NOT] Repair, MacBook e-Waste

In my opinion: Mac’s need to be kept a somewhat open ecosystem like they are now (emphasis on somewhat). I believe if I pay $3500 for a spec’d out 2020 16" Macbook Pro i9…which I did recently — then I deserve to access, modify, maintain, and repair my system. I’m a developer, I’m a computer enthusiast, I’m responsible for the consequences of actions on my machine; but Apple, please let me tinker with, and fully utilize my purpose-built pro machine.

Clearly, Apple has already shown they are trying to lock down the Mac hardware, as seen by their legal action against independent repairs.[source] They have a history of forcing users to pay outrageous prices for simple fixes, or more likely: telling users their fixable machine needs to be replaced entirely, all for massive financial gain at the expense of customers. Their disregard for the environment is a secondary effect of Apple locking down the hardware of their systems. Thousands of perfectly fine ‘16+ T2-chipped Macbooks are destroyed because the past owner fails to remove their old password properly, and Apple refuses to restore access to the current owner[source], making the computers effectively worthless shiny slabs[Source].

An Uncertain Future for Pro Users

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Another concern, iOS/iPadOS, is very ‘consumer-focused,’ again very closed off from user’ tampering.’ To modify anything even remotely, you need to jailbreak, break out of Apple’s walled garden. The fact that you can’t just install an app via an APK off some site (like Android), but instead have to go through Apple’s monopolized App Store, restricts both developers and users unfairly. I’m quite a bit concerned, as macOS takes on a very iOS feel, as well as transitioning from X86 to ARM, that Apple could lock-down user access to macOS. I can’t help but fear macOS pro-user/developer freedoms will be slowly replaced, in favor of a more ‘consumer-focused’ experience, with ‘ease of use’ taking total priority. I fear Apple’s pro users will eventually be handicapped by Apple’s heavy hand.

This scenario is just conjecture at the moment, but macOS could very-well be approaching the slippery slope proposed above.

In conclusion

Big Sur has the potential to be something great. If they fix the lingering skeuomorphism and make everything cohesively neomorphic, it’ll be a stunning OS. As far as for the future of macOS, nobody knows what Apple’s planning, but there’s a definite push to make all OS’s more unified. How far Apple goes with that, only Apple truly knows (or at least I hope they know..).

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2020 Macbook Pro 16" — Source

I recently upgraded to a new MacBook as I was working on this blog post. My ‘old’ 2018 MacBook(i7, 12GB RAM) was continually running over 200º, hitting 100% CPU usage, and running out of RAM when I was multitasking and creating applications. I can confidently say my 2020 16" MacBook Pro (Intel i9 2.3Ghz, 32GB RAM, AMD Radeon Pro 5500M 8GB) is a perfect development powerhouse so far. Apple shocked the tech community as a whole when they astonishingly listened to customer feedback! The keyboard is no longer flawed; I actually like the feel of the new keyboard better. It runs like an absolute beast, dominating benchmark tests, not even breaking a sweat at a cumbersome developer workflow as I simultaneously stream 4K video with an embarrassingly excessive amount of tabs open.

This 16" MacBook is a massive win for pro users. Apple has finally shown us they care about the pro users, many of whom previously felt neglected by Apple’s focus on mass-appeal products like the iPhone. It would be a massive mistake to make this well-built powerhouse, only to then kneecap the future lineup of ARM Mac’s. That’s a mistake most pro users would not put up with . I know a ton of developers personally, who’ve switched to Windows in the last couple of years. It may be due to Apple’s neglect to fix a flawed keyboard design for years, or due to Catalina dropping support of legacy applications. But, Apple still has a loyal software-engineer/data science user-base, that they need to keep happy, or there will be a mass developer exodus to Windows.

I hope as they transition to ARM, that they’ll keep (or even increase) the current standard of functionality and quality that this 2020 MacBook shows in strides — but only time will tell how this plays out.

Check out:

Apple’s horrid repair policies are forcing shops to destroy stacks of MacBook Pros — Input Mag

The iPadification of MacOS — The Verge

Mac O’Clock

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