Monday, April 12, 2010

Meta-platforms make bad apps?

John Gruber has a claim that Steve Jobs appears to endorse.

I can see two arguments here. On the one side, this rule should be good for quality. Cross-platform software toolkits have never — ever — produced top-notch native apps for Apple platforms. Not for the classic Mac OS, not for Mac OS X, and not for iPhone OS. Such apps generally have been downright crummy. On the other hand, perhaps iPhone users will be missing out on good apps that would have been released if not for this rule, but won’t now. I don’t think iPhone OS users are going to miss the sort of apps these cross-platform toolkits produce, though.

I used to believe this. I thought about Tcl/Tk apps, which are always fumbly and unpolished, versus native Apple and Windows apps, which at least sometimes have slick UIs. Thereofore, cross-platform toolkits are bad. It was a hasty generalization, however. Applications based on web frameworks, Java, or .Net are much better than those based on Tcl/Tk. They look just as good as native apps, and they fit the native look and feel just fine. Thus it comes down to an issue of functionality, and on functionality the native apps don't compete very well.

I spent a couple of years recently trying to use a Mac laptop and live the Apple dream of everything being compatible with everything. One by one, I grudgingly stopped using almost all of the native Apple software in favor of cross-platform software. Specifically:

  • Mail, contacts, and calendar form a trio that take good advantage of interop. However, the mail program can't thread, which I ultimately admitted is a show stopper for anyone participating on mailing lists. The calender program is okay, but I can't share events on it with other people, which again is a really important bit of functionality. I switched to web-based versions of both of these, after which the built-in contacts program had nothing to interoperate with. Thus I switched to a web-based contacts solution as well.
  • For editing documents, I tried to love the built-in NeoOffice. It's not really any better than stock builds of OpenOffice, though. Ultimately I stopped using OpenOffice, because there's no good problem for it to solve. For simple documents I used web-based tools, with their improved sharing and publishing affordances. For documents where I work harder, I use Latex.
  • For software development in Java, Intellij, Netbeans, and Eclipse are the heavy hitters. There wasn't even a native app for me to try. Apple supplies XCode, but I never really tried it. I'm not sure it even supports Java at all.
  • For all other software development, Emacs is so good I never even considered an alternative.
  • For web browsing, I initially tried to like Safari, and it's pretty good. However, I ended up wanting to use Firefox for a lot of things, for reasons I can't remember now. Ultimately, I ended up using Chrome.
  • For command-line access, I initially used the built-in Apple terminal program. I later switched to a different Apple-specific program called iTerm.

As can be seen, in almost every case, the best of breed software for Mac Laptop is built on a meta-platform--exactly the kind of meta-platform Jobs is banning from iPhones. Good thing he hasn't done so for Apple laptops, or they'd instantly become third-rate for working professionals! The native apps are okay for very basic usage, and they are sometimes prettier, but they're woefully underpowered once you try to do anything with them.

This emperor has no clothes. Anyone who currently believes that native Apple-specific software is better, ask yourself: what software do you use day to day? Is Apple-specific software really any better, or is it just cutesy demoware that is good enough if the main thing you do with a computer is show it to people?

I'm checking out of that game. If you use your computer to get work done, then you need good application software, not just a good OS. For that, you want a large pool of candidate software to draw from.

1 comment:

Robert "kebernet" Cooper said...

Keynote. Keynote is a top-of-the-line app. OmniGraffle too. Other than those... Everything I use is XPlat