iPadOS and Catalyst: Blurring the lines between desktop and mobile

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In a recent talk, I shared a few thoughts on what Apple's iPadOS and Catalyst announcements at this year's WWDC might mean for us. If Apple gets its way, we're in for an interesting shift in the way that we think about mobile products and how we organise our businesses around them.

Apple has been adding productivity features to iOS on the iPad for years, and this year they announced iPadOS. iPad grew up on a mobile operating system, and started evolving to adopt desktop-like featured. With iPadOS, they're paving the way for very iPad-specific features to come in the future.

It's no mistake that Catalyst, the ability for developers to have their iPad apps run on macOS, was announced at the same time as iPadOS. If iPad is to become more desktop-like, then the app ecosystem needs to do so as well. If an app is to run in both places, we should expect new levels of sophistication and complexity to come our way.

The lines between desktop and mobile have blurred.

As app developers embrace Catalyst and enhance their apps to cater to both desktop and mobile contexts, they're going to have to grapple with some interesting things. Here are two important ones.

Organisational change

If we embrace this, we need to re-examine the ways in which we organise ourselves and collaborate.

It's not uncommon for a 'mobile team' to exist as a silo, with other teams working on 'desktop' products. (A rant for another day.) If the mobile team is now able to deliver desktop experiences, that siloed organisational structure will falter and fail. The divisions of responsibility and ownership have changed, the personas you build for are more broad, the problems you solve are more overlapping.

Heck, people already struggle with this kind of problem. I love this line from a post by John Cutler:

The reality is that the biggest force keeping us locked into the feature factory is structure and local optimization. It is hard… not because the tools and practices are particularly hard, but because we structure our organizations around trust proxies, hand-offs, and mini-kingdoms.

Safety in Silos, by John Cutler.

If you work in a siloed mobile team, you know this well. Catalyst apps will bring this into sharp focus and place you in opposition to others. To succeed, you'll need to explore ways to collaborate and share responsibility more effectively.

User contexts

Someone may sit at their desk and use your product for a while, then grab their iPad and settle down in their favourite seat in their local coffee shop, continuing where they left off.

In your Catalyst app, you'll need to be sensitive to these changing device contexts. Are people doing the same things on all devices? Do they need everything? Does the prominence of features change?

I can hear you saying that this is similar to considerations you'd have when building a responsive web experience. Graceful degradation of experiences and all that. You're right, but there's a difference.. the expectation that Apple's trying to nurture here is that desktop and iPad experiences can be powerful in their sophistication. A user's expectation won't be one of gracefully degraded experiences. It'll be of powerful and contextual experiences that let them complete the same jobs in many different places.

The way we think about exploring and mapping workflows and user journeys will need to evolve. If you aren't close to your customers, building a Catalyst app that meets their needs with all this in mind will be hard.

It isn't as easy as saying, "oooh.. we should use this Catalyst thing!" The success of doing this will be rooted in your understanding of workflows and needs, relationships with your users, the organisation of your products and teams, and the ways in which you collaborate and share responsibility that was once 'owned' by someone else.

Before getting on the Catalyst train, ask yourself how these considerations will play out. There's likely to be more groundwork involved than simply making an existing app compatible.

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