Mobile apps: iOS on Apple’s M1 MacBooks face the same challenges as Android on Chromebooks

I’ve really enjoyed reading about the new Apple M1-powered MacBook Air and MacBook Pro this past week. I’m impressed by Apple’s silicon design chops to bring a 3.9 GHz ARM system-on-a-chip to what’s traditionally been an x86 world. So much so that I wish Google would design a Chrome OS optimized ARM chip of its own. That’s a potential future development though. Now, I’m looking to see how the iOS app experience on the new Macs compares to that of the Android app experience on Chromebooks.

Although there are some benefits that Apple iOS and iPad OS developers have compared to Android developers, by and large, using mobile apps on the Mac doesn’t seem that much better than using mobile apps on a Chromebook.

I’ve seen a number of video examples, but here are a few written ones from various reviews I’ve read.

Chance Miller, 9to5 Mac:

Almost all of the streaming video services have chosen not to allow their apps to be run on the Mac, including Hulu, Netflix, Plex, and Amazon Prime Video. The one surprise here, however, is that HBO Max is available on the Mac… but it’s not very good. For instance, the HBO Max application can’t be resized and there’s no way to enter full-screen for video playback. It really is the worst possible way to watch video on a Mac, but at least it’s available as an option, I guess.

Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

The current iOS app experience on an M1 machine running Big Sur is almost comical; it’s so silly. There is no default tool-tip that explains how to replicate common iOS interactions like swipe-from-edge — instead a badly formatted cheat sheet is buried in a menu. The apps launch and run in windows only. Yes, that’s right, no full-screen iOS or iPad apps at all. It’s super cool for a second to have instant native support for iOS on the Mac, but at the end of the day this is a marketing win, not a user experience win. 

Samuel Axon, ArsTechnica:

Unfortunately, I must report that this iOS/iPadOS app capability needs a lot more time in the oven. The iPhone and iPad app experience in macOS is simply not good most of the time. The simpler the app, the better it’s likely to work. Some Twitter clients are nice enough to use, alongside some shopping apps, but complex apps are hit and miss at best.

As a Chromebook user, does any of this sound familiar?

Probably. Android app compatibility on Chrome OS has been around since 2015, but I don’t think it’s a primary use case for buying a Chromebook.

Indeed, I’m often asked by readers if they should buy a Chromebook or an Android tablet when their main purpose will be to run Android apps. Nope, I suggest to them. You’re going to get a much better app experience on a native Android tablet in most cases. To me, having mobile apps on a traditional laptop is really a potential benefit with marginal extra value.

Multiple Chrome tabs, a PWA, Google Play Music Android app and Linux humming along.

In the case of iOS apps on a MacBook, that’s especially true to due to the lack of a touchscreen and the ability to fold the display over for tent or tablet mode. The few times I do use an Android app on my Chromebooks, for example, is with the touchscreen and the display rotated back. No can do on a MacBook right now.

However, there is a key benefit that Apple users will enjoy and that’s the fact that the iOS apps will generally run natively and won’t need to be recompiled for the new Apple M1 chip.

That’s because it runs the same ARM instruction set as the chips inside iPhones and iPads. Many Chromebooks are powered by chips with an x86 instruction set so there’s some recompiling or translation feature involved to run ARM-compiled Android apps. Additionally, I haven’t seen the bulk of Android app developers optimize their mobile apps for Chrome OS using Google’s recommendations, such as using responsive design techniques.

Regardless, while it was easy to pile on to Google for a mediocre Android app experience on Chromebooks, a consensus of reviewers now know it’s not easy to bring a mobile app experience to Macs either.

I suspect that will improve on Apple devices over time, mainly because the potential exists to write both desktop and mobile apps from a single code-base in the world of Macs. But just like Android on Chromebooks, we’ll have to wait and see.

12 thoughts on “Mobile apps: iOS on Apple’s M1 MacBooks face the same challenges as Android on Chromebooks

  • November 22, 2020 at 3:31 pm
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    Android x86 compatibility is quite good with many native apps. For examples, you can check out apkmirror.com

    ARM emulation has been assumed a number of times before, but I’ve yet to see it…

    Reply
  • November 22, 2020 at 4:12 pm
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    Thanks for interesting article hghlighting the issues on mobile apps on a desktop whether its chromeos or macos.
    BUT when you say this:
    Many Chromebooks are powered by chips with an x86 instruction set so there’s some recompiling or translation feature involved to run ARM-compiled Android apps.

    Thats just not correct. Apart from some (most?) games which make use of native arm libs via NDK, the majority of Android apps are in Java/Kotlin running on the Dalvik VM and so there is NO recompiling or translation required! The VM may optimise by precompiling Dalvik bytecode into native code but that happens on Android arm devices as well as x86 ones.

    Reply
    • November 22, 2020 at 4:24 pm
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      I get that Android apps are in Java/Kotlin running on the Dalvik VM, so no recompiling or translation is needed.
      Any thoughts on why some apps (eg. Journey) just run or at least startup so much slower on an Intel Chromebook than an arm phone? Is the Dalvik environment just badly optimised for Intel?

      Reply
    • November 23, 2020 at 10:06 am
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      Dalvik VM? Dalvik was killed in 2013. The last version of Android that had Dalvik was Android 4.4 KitKat. Android now uses ART.

      Reply
      • November 23, 2020 at 4:31 pm
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        Kawshik, I’m well aware of ART. Its simply a name change rebrand when they built it to replace the original DalvikVM.
        NOTE:
        > The successor of Dalvik is Android Runtime (ART), which uses the same bytecode and .dex files
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalvik_(software)

        So if it runs Dalvik bytecode *by definition* it’s a DalvikVM, just like all VMs that run Java bytecode are JVM’s, no matter what their “brand” names are.

        Hence all *actual* points in my original comment stand.

        Reply
  • November 22, 2020 at 4:59 pm
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    Chris_W some apps that are not games maybe using native libraries and if they don’t include x86 versions of those libraries than on Android x86 devices they *do* need to do on the fly translation in which case startup maybe slower.
    I should also point out this is completely up to app Devs, Android has supported shipping x86 along with arm native libs in apps pretty much from beginning, it’s just up to app Devs to be bothered to do the right thing.

    Reply
  • November 22, 2020 at 7:03 pm
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    I suspect you will see much faster improvement of the mobile app experience on Macs simply because the App Store is where the money is. I’ve read various estimates, but something like 80-90% of all app profits go to ones for iOS, so there is bound to be a pretty good incentive for developers to cater to the new Macbooks. Android developers, not so much. Another thing is that you know Apple will keep supporting this direction, while with Google you never know what they will shut down tomorrow or change in some ridiculous manner making all your work up to that point pointless.

    Reply
    • November 23, 2020 at 10:42 am
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      “something like 80-90% of all app profits go to ones for iOS”

      I don’t know where you got your numbers, but’s that not the perception you get from various reports.

      Just for context the most recent report by Sensor Tower said that in the first half of 2020 the App Store had a revenue of 32.8 B$, while Google Play’s was 17.3 B$, so Google play was about 34.53 % of all revenue.

      But, these numbers do not include Chinese Android app stores, where the Play Store doesn’t operate (and with China being the biggest app market right now) and third party Android app stores in the west (Amazon, Samsung, Huawei’s App Gallery).

      The general consensus from reports I’ve seen that DO include these alternatives is that Android, from 2019 forward, makes about as much money as iOS on a global scale.

      Reply
  • November 23, 2020 at 2:40 am
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    This thing that android apps are so bad on chromebooks is not that true imho: they’re quite usable, if you have got a touchscreen. They may look like on a smartphone, but you can easily interact with them with your fingers.

    Regarding me, I actually need only one or two android apps for work purposes and I prefer the corresponding web services when on my chromebook but, while I’m not a gamer, I can’t deny that android apps on a chromebook are very good for casual gamers.

    On the other side, I have also used android apps without a touchscreen, even in windows with the android studio avd emulator or with bluestacks or in linux with anbox and such experiences are actually bad. So my guess is that the new generation of Macs could come with a touchscreen, if they want to go the mobile apps route on laptops.

    Reply
  • November 23, 2020 at 6:42 am
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    My experience with apps on a chromebook has gotten better and better.

    Admittedly, at first it all seemed redundant and, when combined with apps that just weren’t designed to work optimally, efforts and experiences were mostly negative to the point of wondering what the point was.

    Lately, say in the last year or so, I have noticed that developers are cleaning up their apps and those that makes sense on the platform work very well.

    Three areas I have found promising are note-taking, photography and video editing. My workflows are designed to be efficient and the less steps in the process the better. I have dreamt of streamlining the process of getting photos and videos off of my camera, backed up to my NAS, added to my Google Photos and ready to be edited locally on my chromebook. All of that is now possible.

    One odd incompatibility is that most video apps don’t use the video format that chromebooks capture natively. Most apps can capture their own video and the odds of using a chromebook as a video camera are unlikely for anyone serious about their videos, but as a teacher my students often only have their chromebooks as video capture devices.

    I imagine Apple will follow a similar growth process as developers catch up and the platform gets built out.

    Reply
  • November 25, 2020 at 5:08 am
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    I do not get it. I am selecting an Apple M1 laptop because I want real applications running on it. Having any expectations running touch apps on a non-touch device It’s just wrong thinking.

    Reply

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