Apple’s OS X 10.8, “Mountain Lion,” marks some changes for Apple. The OS will now get annual updates, and Gatekeeper starts the OS down the road of apps being digitally signed by Apple, even if they’re not in the Mac App Store. We asked a few developers how they’re feeling about the Mountain Lion announcement.
The three questions that were on our mind right after Mountain Lion was announced were:
- What are your thoughts on Apple’s plan for yearly updates to OS X? Is it stressful? Doable?
- What’s your reaction to Mountain Lion’s Gatekeeper, especially regarding what you suspect Apple’s plans are for the future?
- How well is Apple doing now with communication and clarity on the sandboxing rules? Is there anything new in Mountain Lion? Are your apps caught up? Is Apple doing anything lately to ease the pain or better document the rules? How is it affecting your business?
Several Developers weighed in with thoughts on all this. Most of those who responded thought the annual updates to OS X is a good thing, but it will be slightly more stressful for them. There was almost universal praise for Gatekeeper. However, despite the generally positive reaction to the announcement of Mountain Lion by the press, most of the developers we spoke with are still a bit unnerved by Apple’s sandboxing initiative, which started with OS X Lion. Below are some of the notable reactions to that continued problem.
Annual Release Cycle
On the yearly updates to OS X, Daniel Jalkut, Red Sweater Software said, “Frankly the idea of yearly updates to OS X is at once incredibly exciting and anxiety-inducing. I think I share with many developers a sense that Apple’s rapid pace of innovation in the OS makes it particularly hard to update our apps to take advantage of every new whiz-bang feature. And for those of us looking to ramp up iOS development, new goodies on Mac OS X is just one more thing competing for our time!
“That said, the announcement of Mountain Lion is another strong indication from Apple that they are very committed to the Mac and its ongoing evolution. For those of heavily invested in the Mac, it is good news to know that the platform is being expanded and refined.”
Florian Albrect of Boinx Software seconded the motion: “First and foremost, seeing Apple once again putting focus on OS X is terrific news! What we have seen so far today is brilliant work and filling lost of the gaps that we saw remaining after the OS X Lion release. Looking forward, evolving the two major platforms somewhat in parallel on the technology level while keeping the user interface concepts sufficiently separate to accommodate the different needs of the hardware sounds like a promising roadmap for users and developers alike.
“The speed will however put quite a high amount of pressure onto developers, as Apple prefers to quickly get rid of legacy technology and push developers to adopt their latest features.
“Time will tell how well we will catch up, but for now many developers are still very busy coping with the major paradigm shifts in OS X Lion like Autosave, Versions and Auto-Termination of apps as well major changes like sandboxing. BTW, I also believe that most ‘regular computer users’ are still even more busy trying to understand those paradigm shifts.”
Mickey Roberson, MRR Software, sized up the long term, intended effect of gatekeeper nicely. “Gatekeeper is a positive step for those who are not willing or able to enter the MAS. It’s a way to keep the user safe while at the same time allowing developers to develop anything they want. If this type of security is as stringent as the desktop restrictions become, then developers are in good hands. Still the Gatekeeper is only as good as the user controlling it. If users buy into the idea and are willing to keep the setting at the default (MAS and developer signed apps only) they will be safer. The more apps that ‘just work’ with Gatekeeper’s default settings, the more users will leave the setting as is.
“Most developers already sign their applications with a certificate so their workflow won’t change, just the origin of the certificate will be from Apple’s Mac Developer Program instead of being the self-signed certificate they may already use.”
Steve Shepard, Storyist Software, voiced some concerns. “The middle option, MAS + code signed applications, is good compromise between security and flexibility. Hopefully, that stays the default beyond Mountain Lion. I suspect, though, that Apple would like to make MAS-only the default, since doing so would increase the angle of that slippery slope to the MAS for many applications.
“My real concern, though, is this: If iCloud is as central to Apple’s plans as Cook says it is and Gruber is correct that only MAS applications will be allowed to make full use of it (Apple hasn’t said otherwise, as far as I can tell), then non-MAS applications will quickly become second class citizens. It don’t think that’s a good thing — for developers, or for the platform.”
The developers we contacted were universal in their dislike for sandboxing. It has placed an enormous amount of stress on them and burned up their time in 2011. Worse, Apple’s lack of clear communication and coherent approach was roundly criticized. The comments from Will Shipley, Delicious-Monster, expressed a common thread. “The sandboxing thing is still a snafu. There are a billion little bugs and gotchas that Apple hasn’t dealt with because most of their apps aren’t sandboxed. Only TextEdit and Preview are sandboxed (using the same sandboxing we’re required to use) right now… so, for example, they’ve never sandboxed one of their own “shoebox” apps like iPhoto or iTunes, nor have they done large apps like Mail or iCal.
“One example problem: right now we can’t run AppleScripts from inside an app. That’s kind of stinky when they’ve been begging us for years to integrate AppleScript. We can’t read, for instance, a song list from iTunes any more, because we don’t have permission to read the XML file any more, and we can’t use AppleScript (and AppleScript required launching iTunes to work anyways, which is a completely unacceptable user experience).
“They’ve also created a way for us to create helper applications (called “XPC”) under sandboxing but it’s completely different from the rest of Cocoa and is in straight C instead of Objective-C.”
Alykhan Jetha, Marketcircle, weighed in: “I think Sandboxing will be a disaster if they roll it out or enforce it too soon. In its current state, it is too soon and it only allows for basic apps. Even Apple’s own major apps are not Sandboxed. Until the likes of Logic, Final Cut X are Sandboxed and working well, I think Apple should keep it optional.”
The breadth of depth of Macintosh applications is also an issue and can potentially tie the hands of creative developers. Tim DeBenedictis, Southern Stars, has had notable difficulties with his quite amazing star catalog application. “…Then Apple required us to sandbox our MAS apps. One of the problems here is that sandboxing denies Mac apps access to serial ports. Well, SkySafari Plus is a telescope control app. Most telescopes (even in 2012!) communicate via RS-232 serial. Thus sandboxing broke a fundamental bit of functionality in our app.
“We’ve since learned that there is a hidden, undocumented entitlement that lets us talk to serial ports (despite sandboxing) — so we’re apparently past this one little hurdle. But what if there wasn’t? What if, in the future, Apple decides that some other bit of functionality we rely on is now to be restricted from third-party apps?”
This is just a sampling of the dozen or so developers who responded to our questions. To say that sandboxing has been a disaster with developers would not be an understatement. In the end, it may well be that Apple has wisely elected to switch the security emphasis towards Gatekeeper and certificates and tone down the rush towards sandboxing, an approach that Will Shipley strongly encouraged back in late 2011.
Signs out of Cupertino, under the leadership of Tim Cook, are encouraging. As Florian Albrecht said, time will tell.