macOS Big Sur: Big Implications for the Future of the Mac

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After what seemed like an eternity, Apple finally launched macOS Big Sur to the public on November 12. As with most OS releases, Big Sur was plagued with download issues initially, but somehow I managed to get my hands on it. After a few days of playing with macOS Big Sur, I am having mixed thoughts. 

It was very clear from Apple’s WWDC20 keynote and ‘One More Thing’ keynote that Big Sur is a huge leap forward for the Mac. That’s what I aim to break down here. Consider this article part review, and part preview. Here’s what I think of macOS Big Sur, and the future of the Mac.

macOS Big Sur Iconography

Let’s start with the most controversial aspect of Big Sur – the icons. Right from WWDC, there has been a huge backlash against the iconography of the latest macOS, and for good reason. At first, these new icons look so horrendous, one wonders whether Johnny Ive’s departure has killed Apple’s design aesthetics. However, it is not as dramatic as that. 

The design style of macOS Big Sur, called ‘neomorphism’ is the latest trend in software design. It has been getting some backlash, but that hasn’t prevented designers (and indeed Apple) from adopting the trend. Input Mag has covered it well, if you feel like reading. That still begs the question, why would Apple adopt a trend that isn’t quite popular, or even liked?

macOS Big Sur icons
Apple has updated all the icons on macOS Big Sur. You can’t help but notice.

It is because of what Big Sur represents. Remember, Big Sur heralds in a new generation of Macs. What better way to highlight that than with a visual overhaul you cannot miss? Icons are the first thing many people notice. By redesigning them with a new trend, Apple is rubbing it in our faces: ARM Macs are here. You cannot help but notice that. 

There’s also another very important thing you might have overlooked: all (or at least most) of macOS Big Sur’s icons are now squircles. Gone are the rounded icons for Apple TV, Music and Podcasts. Everything now fits inside a very iOS-like shape. Remember though, that this isn’t iOS. That’s why some icons like Automator, Script Editor and XCode feature elements that break away from the shape. It’s almost as if Apple is telling us, macOS is now nearly iOS, but not quite. 

I am not sure how I feel about this change. While I dread some icons like Messages and FaceTime, others like Pages, Reminders and System Preferences feel much more pleasing. Certainly the darker and bolder colours work in some places, but not others. Maybe it is just me, but all the green icons do seem a little bit in my face, clamouring for attention. I think it will take some more time for the iconography to grow on me. 

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User Interface on macOS Big Sur

The UI of macOS Big Sur has also got a big overhaul. The Toolbar is a good place to start. In previous versions of macOS, the Toolbar was its own distinct space, with buttons clearly having their own defined space. Not anymore. Personally, I really like this change. It makes macOS feel unified, in a way it just wasn’t before. Apple doesn’t seem to be wasting much space with this UI. Sure, it does mean that there is less space, and that Toolbars can get crowded, but I don’t think it is something too concerning.

macOS Big Sur Finder
The Finder in macOS Big Sur is now cleaner.

The same goes for the Sidebar. It is now its own space, with a blurred background that is more opaque than previous versions. On previous versions, you could clearly see the wallpaper in the background, but not anymore. In a way it is good, there is now a clear space to use when you want to drag a window around. 

Here’s another surprising, but interesting change – dialogue boxes. In previous macOS versions, these boxes would usually be on the top right. Not anymore though, they are now front and centre very much like iOS. This is a change I really liked. It makes these boxes more reachable, and useful. They can be a bit obtrusive, but I think that’s the point. By being in your face, the box is encouraging you to notice and take action. 

Control Centre & Notification Centre

Control Centre on macOS seems a little vague, given how you have physical keys and a Menu Bar. It’s not clear why Apple opted to bring the feature to the Mac, especially when you notice the M1 MacBook Air. Apple has replaced the keyboard brightness keys and Launchpad keys with keys for Spotlight, Dictation and DND. Keyboard brightness moves to Control Centre, and it seems like the Launchpad is dead without a dedicated key. 

macOS Big Sur Control Centre
Right now, the Control Centre seems useless, even if it is aesthetically pleasing on macOS.

While I like the design of Control Centre, it seems confusing why Apple would provide so many ways to access specific functions. Through System Preferences, you can select if you want options like BlueTooth, sound and even “Fast User Switching” in the Control Centre, or Menu Bar. It is very unlike Apple, and can be confusing. But at least they are giving you the freedom to choose. Another gripe I have with Control Centre is that there is no dedicated ‘back’ button when you select a specific option. Instead, you need to click the title section. Not cool Apple.

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Notification Centre is a bit better. Apple has ported over its iOS-style widgets to the Mac. As a result, the widgets are now much larger, and easier to read. The only drawback is that closing notifications now requires you to click on a very tiny X, which is super hard to see. I feel like Apple has tried too hard to mimic iOS, and forgotten that macOS is moused based with Control Centre and Notification Centre. 

The Future of macOS

macOS Big Sur is indeed a huge leap forward for the Mac. Not only does it represent the arrival of a new generation of Mac, but something even bigger: the merging of iOS and macOS. As Craig Federighi has made it very clear, macOS will never get a touchscreen. However, there are some very clear design elements like Control Centre, Notification Centre and iconography that have made the jump over. macOS is increasingly starting to look like a mouse-based version of iOS. It could just be a coincidence, but as with everything Apple, there are no coincidences. 

The fact that macOS is starting to look like iOS is a very big deal. Firstly, and most importantly because macOS is going to be home to millions of iOS (and iPadOS) apps. The M1 chip is fully capable of running iOS apps as native Mac apps. That’s why Apple wants to build an environment where these iOS apps feel at home. Whether it is Control Centre or Widgets, running iOS apps on a Mac needs to feel as native as possible. Those elements help, even if they aren’t fully ready yet. Expect more refinements over the years, as macOS does become a ‘pro’ version of iOS. 

macOS Big Sur Widgets
Widgets in macOS Big Sur is the best indication of iOS’ design making their way to Mac.

The second is that with technologies like SideCar and Continuity, Apple’s ecosystem needs to feel as seamless as possible. So far, macOS was excluded, because Intel’s chips couldn’t do the same things iPhone and iPad chips could. Now, that’s no longer a barrier. As with apps, Apple wants users using SideCar and other features to feel like the Mac is an extension of the iPad. There needs to be a seamless transition from touch to mouse, and it begins with an interface. For years, we speculated that Apple would bring more Mac-based features to iPadOS. With macOS Big Sur, it is clearly the other way around. 

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That’s not to say iPadOS and iOS are not picking up from the Mac. As Apple’s processors get increasingly more powerful, iPad in particular will continue to pick up Mac-based features. Rather than redesign from the ground up, iPadOS will now share a very similar environment to the Mac, making that transition easier (at least for those on the ecosystem). 

It certainly is a very exciting time to be in the Apple ecosystem. With M1, the Mac has been opened up in ways never possible before. macOS Big Sur is indeed monumental, just in more ways than we thought. The future of Mac is indeed very exciting. 

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