How Better iOS Apps on Big Sur Point to Touchscreen Macs

Or, with Apple, maybe not

Key Takeaways

  • The next version of macOS 11.3 Big Sur improves usability for iOS apps.
  • iPad apps can be bigger, and touch-translating tools are more configurable.
  • Better support for iOS apps could mean touch-screen Macs are coming.
A woman's hand on a touchscreen monitor.
Timothy Muza / Unsplash

The next version of macOS Big Sur improves the experience of running iPad apps on the M1 Macs, which makes people wonder if touchscreen Macs are on the horizon.

Two changes in macOS 11.3 beta make running iPad apps on your Apple Silicon Mac way less annoying. One is that you can now enjoy much bigger windows for the apps (should your monitor be big enough to display them).

The other is an improvement to the way the Mac translates trackpad and keyboard presses to touch actions on the iOS app. These changes might just be there to make using the app more pleasant. Or perhaps Apple is getting ready for the launch of touch-screen Mac. 

"I don’t believe that larger windows and better support for keyboards and trackpads means that a touch Mac is imminent," Mac and iOS software developer Jacob Gorban told Lifewire via email.

"Keyboards and trackpads are exactly the opposite of on-screen touch control. That being said, the overall layout of macOS Big Sur, with more iOS-like buttons in the Control Center and larger distances between the menu bar icons, may point to a future touch-based Mac."

Better and Better

Because the M1-based Macs share their general chip design with the iPhone and iPad, you can run any iOS app right there alongside your regular Mac apps—provided the developer has made them available in the Mac App Store. 

The first iteration of iOS apps on the Mac was pretty poor. Video apps like Hulu would not work full-screen. Other apps might extend off the bottom of your desktop and be impossible to retrieve. Or perhaps there were usability limits.

Someone using an iPad with a mac computer in the background.
Tara Shypka / Unsplash

The Slack iOS app is preferable to the Mac version for several reasons (it’s a native app, for example, not a web app, and therefore uses much less of the Mac’s precious RAM), but there’s no way to resize its text, making it hard to read anything. Despite this, being able to open a favorite iOS app on the Mac can be very handy. 

"Mac users are now able to use some of the same applications that they are familiar with from using on their iOS devices," says Gorban. "These apps can be better than web equivalents, or perhaps there was no way to use the same application or game except on a mobile device.”

For example, the iPhone has many lightweight photo apps that let you do quick and simple edits to your photos. These are ideal on the Mac. Also great, even now, are apps that require minimal interaction. A weather app perhaps, or a video app.

But the biggest hurdle to using iOS apps on the Mac is touch. Using a trackpad or mouse is fine if all you want to do is simulate a tap on the screen, but so far, everything else has been subpar. 

Touch alternatives on the Mac computer system.

To help mimic the fluid touch controls of iOS, the Mac uses something called Touch Alternatives. In current versions of macOS Big Sur, they simulate touches and drags, and even let you use your Mac’s trackpad as a virtual touch-screen, complete with support for multi-touch.

This sounds fine, but in practice it’s just terrible, forcing you into an all-or-nothing choice. The 11.3 beta, however, breaks these alternatives out, with separate checkboxes for each. 

Touch Screen Mac?

Does this improvement to iOS apps on the Mac point to touch-screen Macs? Maybe. It would certainly be convenient to reach up and tap an iPhone app on the screen of your MacBook, and there are plenty of Windows and Chromebook laptops with touch screens. But with Apple, who ever knows?

"I don’t believe that larger windows and better support for keyboards and trackpads means that a touch Mac is imminent."

Mouse support on the iPad seemed impossible, until Apple announced the iPad Magic Keyboard and Trackpad. Mouse support on iOS is excellent, but is secondary to the primary input method: touch.

If Apple does add a touch screen to the Mac, then perhaps it will do the opposite, making some accommodations for touch, but not at the expense of the keyboard and mouse.

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