With major OSs now able to run mobile apps, what next for traditional desktop software? And will today’s mix of Windows, macOS and Linux give way to a life lived in your browser?
Apple recently pulled one of its famous handbrake turns, moving from industry-standard Intel processors to one of its own design, dubbed “Apple Silicon”. This is an interesting decision, and much has been written of the far-reaching consequences both for Mac users and the industry as a whole.
But lost in the fallout is a similarly significant impact on the future of desktop applications. Because this move to Apple Silicon means that Macs can now run iOS/iPadOS applications natively.
A project with similar outcome has recently leaked from Microsoft HQ: dubbed Project Latte, it allows Android apps to run on Windows. Linux users have the same via a similar mechanism, and Chromebook users have had this benefit for a while now (and the experience has been improving on an almost daily basis).
So, if Microsoft really does manage to pull off Project Latte, it will mean that all the major desktop OSs have access to one or other of the mobile app stores.
So what does that mean for traditional native Windows, macOS and Linux applications? I foresee a future where developers no longer build single-OS applications. If you’re building an application and need to support, say, Windows laptops, will you really want to go to the expense of developing an entirely separate Windows version of it? The smart choice will surely be to build large-screen support into your Android application, so that it not only works on Android phones and tablets, but also laptops and desktops too. The cost of development and maintenance will reduce as your dev team has only one codebase to manage.
One side effect of this might be the improvement of Android tablet applications. Often developers overlook this platform, despite the fact that around 100m Android tablets ship yearly worldwide. (Apple, the nearest competitor, ships around half this number.) But if an application is required to support laptop/desktop-sized screens as well as phones, then it more or less follows that it will also support tablet sized devices and everything else in between.
The World Wide Web
But that still leaves us with a split. Apple on one side, the rest of the world on the other. And that means at least two apps are needed to reach 99% of the world. However there is still one platform which unites the two. It’s been around for 31 years and can be found on desktops, mobiles, tablets, TVs, games consoles (though not the PS5) and even your fridge. It’s none other than the World Wide Web. Modern browsers are operating systems in their own right, as demonstrated by applications like Microsoft 365, Google Docs and Photoshop Express which run inside them.
Right now, web apps can’t match native apps for speed, quality and refinement. There is still no reliable way to connect to a Bluetooth device via a browser-based app, for example. But it’s a platform full of innovation, and no industry can sustain a requirement to produce everything twice (or even three times), long term. And app store fees are another issue which apps in the browser neatly side-step. So I’m confident that one day this will change.
Being as the open-to-all freedom of the web endangers Apple’s position as the only gatekeeper to their platform, they will fight hard to protect their own interests. But they have to keep innovating for that to fly.
So that’s my prediction: within 5 years, there will be no new single-platform desktop apps. And within 10-15 years, the industry will have shifted towards the world wide web – or a similar open-to-all platform – just as it did at the beginning of the century.