macOS Big Sur — Explained! (WWDC 2020)

macOS Big Sur runs on any 12-inch MacBook, the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro from 2013 and later, the Mac mini and iMac from 2014 and later, the Mac Pro from 2013 and later, and the iMac Pro.

iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur

One of the biggest advantages of the modern Mac is that it can better keep pace with new iPhone features and vice versa. More on that in a hot minute.

As a result, some of the new features in macOS Big Sur are similar or the same as the ones in iOS 14, which I covered in a video earlier this week. Rather than double dip on you, I’ll just point you to that video for more.

That includes things like the new Messages group features, and the modern Messages features in general — Sent with Lasers, Finally — and things like Cycling directions in Maps.

The way these features were implemented though, is worth a whole helluva lot of discussion. So more on that in an even hotter minute.

Big Sur also gets the same new, cross-platform-thanks-to-SwiftUI Widgets. Based on the Watch complications, they look terrific, the information density is generally great, the glanceability is aces… but they’re a huge step down when it comes to interactivity.

In other words, if you liked having a calculator widget, that’s gone. At least for now. The new widgets are display only, with everything else handled by deep-linking you into their host app.

Also, unlike iOS, where you can pin arbitrary widgets to the Home screen, or iPadOS, where you can pin a sidebar filled with them to the Home screen, in Big Sur, widgets are still constrained to Notification Center, so you still have to swipe them in and out, like you’ve had to since the old Dashboard days of yore, and yes like an animal. Which is fine if your desktop is littered with app windows but an extra step if it’s otherwise clear.

macOS Big Sur Going to 11

With macOS Big Sur, Apple is finally taking the Mac to 11. Which is great, because all the 10 dots were getting more than a little ridiculous.

I do wish, instead of incrementing the full version number, Apple had dropped it, incremented the point number, and just gone with macOS 16, because right now the much older macOS seems much younger than iOS 14, but I’ve been told it’s incredibly rude to point out an operating system’s age.

Plus, Craig Federighi lays all credit and blame on Apple’s crack marketing team anyway.

And, either way, that Apple finally decided to change the venerable macOS — nee OS X — version number shows just how big a deal they believe Big Sur really is.

macOS Big Sur Boot up

Now, I’ve also already done a whole video explaining the Mac’s Intel to Apple Silicon transition. Seriously, just hit subscribe already! But, there are a few really cool new macOS features that will be coming as part of that transition as well that I just have to go over here.

Namely, to the boot and start up experience.

Because the Mac is moving to the same type of systems-on-a-chip the iPhone and iPad have been using for a decade, the Mac is also getting a very iPhone and iPad-like secure boot process.

That basically means each stage of boot-up is cryptographically verified along the chain, making it much, much harder for malware to get deep into the system.

But, for the Mac version, Apple has added the very Mac-like ability to boot from multiple macOS versions, either on internal or external drives. In other words, as new versions come out, you’ll be able to continue booting into older versions if you want to.

The startup experience itself has also been simplified. So, if you want to boot into a different mode, instead of having to hold down a bunch of random keys, hoping beyond hope you got the right ones at the right time, you just hold down the power button and you get an interface asking you which mode you want to boot into. I love it.

There’s a new Mac Sharing Mode, which replaces Target Disk Mode. It uses SMB to provide access to data between Macs, with the appropriate authentication, of course.

You can also choose between full and reduced security models.

Full security mode, which is the default, is similar to the iPhone or iPad. Super safe but super locked down. The main difference is you can still boot from external volumes on the Mac, even in full security mode. For more mainstream customers coming to the Mac from the iPhone and iPad — and who want to run iPhone and iPad apps on the Mac — it’s the best option.

Reduced security mode, by contrast, is far more flexible and configurable, like the traditional Mac. You can run any old version of macOS, even those no longer signed by Apple, and you can install notarized 3rd party kernel extensions, if you’re into that. For pros and power users, hobbyists, researchers, who want to run anything they want to run on the Mac, this is totally there for you.

Unlike Intel Macs, Apple Silicon Macs let you choose security per macOS install, so you can have your locked down volume and eat your freedom volume cake too.

There’s secure hibernation, so if your battery runs low, you still get full, at-rest protection, integrity, and anti-reply protection.

Recovery is even super smarter. Unlike Intel Macs, which have internet recovery, Apple Silicon Macs get System Recovery. Basically, a minimal, separate, macOS environment in a hidden container that lets you reinstall macOS, even macOS Recovery if and when you need to.

And, yeah, Apple Configurator 2 is also supported.

And I think this shows two important things:

  1. Apple really believes using their own silicon will let them delivery a far better experience to Mac users, and;
  2. That applies to the growing number of mainstream users, for sure, but also to the incredibly important — and vocal — traditional Mac user as well.

macOS Big Sur Design

For my first impressions of the macOS Big Sur design changes, see my weekly column at iMore:

macOS Big Sur Catalyst

Along those lines, Apple’s now into the third year of Catalyst. That’s the project name for bringing iOS-based UIKit apps to the Mac.

The first year, the first beta apps, were kind of not-very-good-terrible. Basically, missing iOS apps hot dumped on the Mac.

The second year, the first public apps, got better. For all the grousing I’ll do about the traditional App Kit Music apps, the Catalyst Apple Podcast app was almost indistinguishable. They may sound like damning with faint praise, but it was a big step for Catalyst.

Swift Playgrounds was even bigger. As opposed to Developer which was super nice to have but also came off as super last minute.

The third year, this year’s apps, though, are pretty damn good. So good, Apple’s willing to bring the most important app on their platform fully into Catalyst — Messages.

And lets be honest here — despite Apple merging their app teams a few years ago to try and promote better feature parity between apps, Messages just never got the memo. Or effects. Or Memoji. Or much of anything.

As a Catalyst app, though, it has petty much everything, including this-year feature like pinning, mentioning, and inline replies.

And, assuaging my own personal fear, it even maintained it’s exclusive features, like screen sharing. Which, yeah, I still want on iOS so badly.

Maps is now Catalyst as well, and getting caught up with features like favorites, indoor maps, ETA, and look around, and getting all the new stuff, same as the iOS versions, including guides, cycling directions, and EV and congestion routing.

But, more critically, there’s no better way to make sure frameworks get attention than by Apple’s biggest apps, and engineers, feeling their pain first. And wow will porting over apps like Messages do that.

I’ll save my thoughts on what that means for the future of Mac frameworks and development for another video, but for now I think we’re seeing another part of a multi-year puzzle finally falling fully into place.

macOS Big Sur Safari

I covered a bunch of the new Safari features in my iOS and iPadOS videos earlier in the week, and while I don’t want to be duplicative here, I also don’t want to take away from just how big an update it is and how important Safari is.

And not just because of all the cool new customization features on the start page.

The web is standardized but also open, which means a lot of those standards are interpreted by the various browser companies. That also means each company interprets them in a way that best suits that company. For example, Apple has a huge native app platform, so they tend to let the web be the web. Other companies, not so much, so they push for the web to be more native.

Because of Google’s influence on the web, a lot of web developers now code for Chrome instead of the open web, just like they used to code for Internet Explorer. It’s understandable but it’s also detrimental. I hope open web advocates inside Google and the developer community can understand and help avoid the long term consequences of that trend.

Apple, for their part, is continuing to make Safari a first class web experience.

That includes web extensions, so developers can port over what they’ve made for other browsers. But with typical Apple privacy protections, so you can choose to run it just once, just for a specific website, or always.

Support for WebP images, though not yet WebM.

There’s translations, and if you look side by side with Chrome, in some cases Safari is even better parsing all the text fields on all the pages.

There’s a new web authentication API and security code autofill.

And then there’s privacy reports, which shows you all the trackers being blocked.

Now, some are casting this feature as Apple vs. the ad industry and worrying about what it means for the future of monetization on the web. Including people who usually complain about web ads more than champion them… But, anyway, I don’t see it that way.

For me it’s about disclosure and consent. I have no problem with advertising on the web. I don’t think Apple does either, because, guess what, they advertise on the web too.

If it’s a good business, with good business practices, I don’t imagine anyone doing it will be angry or upset about what they’re doing getting an Apple-sized spotlight.

If anything, it’ll make web advertising a better, more upfront, more honest business for everyone. And that would be a huge win for everyone.

macOS Big Sur and You

macOS Big Sur is currently in developer beta. It'll be going into public beta in July with full release scheduled for this fall.