Windows and macOS still haven’t found the right balance for managing apps


I’m reviewing two very different computers right now: the new 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro and the new 2020 Surface Go 2. You can click the links in the previous sentences for some first impressions and if you’ve got specific questions for the review, feel free to email me and I’ll do my best to address as many as I can later this week.

These are very different computers because the MacBook is powerful and meant for “pros” (whatever that means anymore) and the Surface Go is itty-bitty and meant to maximize portability for when you are out and about (whatever that means anymore).

They also have different answers to the age-old question, “where does the computer go in a computer?” For the Mac, it’s under the keyboard; for the Surface, it’s behind the screen. (The Surface Book 3 has an even more interesting answer: both. And yes, for those of you who listened to the Vergecast last week, I have heard you and do believe there really are people who separate the screen.)

But I’m just as interested in something they share: their attempts to bring their desktop operating systems into the modern era of what I’ll call “Managed Operating Systems.” I’ve written and made videos about this before, so you may know where this is going: I’m fascinated by the spectrum that runs from the iPhone and iPad on one end to wild and woolly open PCs on the other end.

The “managed” systems roughly include those iOS devices, Chrome OS, and Android. They’re more tightly controlled, tend to have their native apps installed via an app store, and tend to have their updates applied as automatically as possible. That’s not to say operating systems like macOS or Windows 10 are unmanaged, of course, but they’ve historically tended to be a little more open. Linux, of course, is yet more open.

And app makers have been, well, a little greedy when it comes to taking advantage of that openness. Wander into your Task Manager or Activity Monitor and peruse your active processes and you may find things running that you don’t expect. Both Windows and macOS have lots of little corners where apps can put themselves without showing up in your official list of apps that run at startup. Some of those apps even re-install their startup daemons every time you use them, even if you’ve manually removed them.

Which is probably part of the reason why both Apple and Microsoft have been experimenting with ways to more tightly manage their desktop operating systems.

macOS Catalina represents a big shift in how often apps have to ask you permission to do stuff they could previously do freely — leading to Windows Vista Syndrome. After a certain point, you just click “yes” on the box without really reading what it’s asking or thinking about its implications — assuming you could even understand what they are. Catalina also wants to shame or scare you whenever you try to run an app you’ve installed from someplace other than the Mac App Store. There’s also quite a lot of confusion and vexation about Apple’s policies towards app notarization.

As for Windows, Microsoft seemingly tries something different every year. Most recently, there’s been an “S Mode” that only allows you to install apps from Microsoft’s app store. Those apps theoretically follow more modern rules for what they can do in the background, leading to a better experience. In practice, though, Microsoft’s app store lacks very common apps that you’ll definitely want to use. Turning off S Mode is easy and nearly instantaneous. so I expect a lot of people do.

I am glad that I can jump right on past these restrictions on both platforms. When I do, I get a much more robust set of capabilities. And, also, more problems.

On both platforms, the most noticeable hassle is on longevity. I see a hit on battery life that’s somewhere between “Huh I feel unsettled that something is draining my battery faster than it should” and “Oh my dear god what have I done? I need to spend the next two days hunting down this battery drain.” (Yes, in both cases my first move was to stop using the Chrome browser).

Finding the right balance between managed and unmanaged operating systems is very difficult. Keep things too locked down and people will complain that your computer can’t let them do “real work” — myself included! Open things up too much and Adobe, Google, and god-knows-who will keep their stuff running the background.

Most of all: try to tighten the screws a little on a previously-open OS and what you’ll get is many — perhaps most — users just loosening them. I’m guilty of it! But the whole point of running a machine with Windows, macOS, or Linux is to be able to do things and run apps that simply don’t work on ChromeOS or iPadOS.

S Mode on Windows is a bit like suddenly seeing a fence erected in your path as you’re trying to hike down a trail. And all of Catalina’s permission dialogs are like warning signs that don’t exactly explain what the real danger is. Sure, you know both might be for your own good as the trail ahead is treacherous — but you still want to get where you’re going. So you jump the fence and walk the treacherous path. They’re all or nothing kinds of fixes.

Instead of a fence blocking the path, I’d like guardrails along it. I’d like to believe that it’s possible to give me the option to use the power I need while tamping down on the worst excesses of the apps that provide that power. I’d like to free up the part of my brain that stores the checklist of places to poke at when I think my computer is running slow or hot.

I don’t think Catalina or S Mode get that balance quite right — but I am genuinely glad both companies are trying to figure it out.

There’s always next year. Or this year, actually. Microsoft seems to be taking yet another crack at it with Windows 10X. We don’t know Apple’s plans yet, but given that the OS Catalina is most often compared to is Windows Vista, you have to assume some changes are coming.

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