Over a decade ago — gulp — I wrote a post following Apple’s WWDC keynote. Steve Jobs had been on stage repeating one mantra over and over again: “It just works.” This was in reference to Apple’s newly launched iCloud service and the notion that unlike the other cloud services that were around at the time, Apple’s intent was to make a bit of infrastructure that just melted into the background. That a user never sees nor thinks about.
It was largely a reaction to MobileMe, Apple’s first foray into the consumer cloud which was, to put it mildly, a total shitshow. Users ended up thinking about it all the time because it did not just work. In fact, it largely didn’t work at all. It remains one of Apple’s biggest disasters of a product. So much so that heads rolled and they all-but abandoned the incredible @me.com domain which they were using.¹
But the truth is that iCloud also didn’t “just work” right out of the gate. Better than MobileMe, sure. But bars have rarely been set lower. These days, iCloud is for the most part pretty great and just works, but as with many Apple products, the first iteration needed some work.
I think about this post and mantra a lot because while they don’t always nail it, it is clearly the ideal to which Apple still aspires. And I found myself thinking about it again this week because Apple rolled out a new feature which I think epitomizes the phrase.
With the launch of iOS 15.4 and macOS 12.3, Apple has rolled out the feature called “Universal Control”. It’s an almost boring name for what it is — but the name also explains what it does: it allows you to control your Apple devices from one point. That is, you can use the trackpad and keyboard on your Mac to control your iPad. And vice versa. It’s one of those things that sounds a bit ho-hum until you actually use it. And then: holy shit. It’s basically magic.
And a huge part of that magic is because it just works. Even though the feature is still technically in beta (still sort of funny to see Apple using that label, which was long associated with Google shipping features perhaps not-quite-ready for prime time, whereas Apple famously ships stuff they view to be “fully baked”), it works.²
Put a MacBook next to an iPad on a table and drag your mouse cursor to the corner of the screen. Suddenly, a gray bar appears on the side of your iPad screen with a little cursor dot trying to break out of its bounds and onto your iPad. It’s such a cool visual way to show you what is happening. It’s almost like a virus leaping species — CAN’T IMAGINE WHY THAT’S TOP OF MIND. Or an alien bursting through a chest cavity? I don’t know. I’m reaching. It’s just wild.
Your MacBook mouse is controlling your iPad! Not your iPad as a second screen for macOS. Your iPad running iOS. And you can swing it back over to the Mac and be right back into macOS mode. There’s even some level of drag-and-drop between the two worlds when it makes sense.³
And when they’re connected, if you have a keyboard and mouse attached to your iPad as well — say, the Magic Keyboard — you can use those peripherals to control the Mac too. And, if you happen to have a third Apple device with you — which of course I do: an iPad mini — that works too! It almost breaks your brain how well it all works.
There have long been questions about how long it would take Apple to merge macOS and iOS. And while the two OSes have clearly been getting closer over the years, trading features back-and-forth, Apple has remained steadfast that they’re remain separate systems for different devices. This may be the first time I actually believe them because Universal Control makes it so simple to use both at the same time.
If you believe, as I do, that macOS is better for some tasks, while iOS is better for others, now you don’t have to compromise. Even if Apple gave us the ability to dual boot macOS and iOS (which they certainly could now that both run on the same Apple Silicon chips), that would be a compromise. iOS apps running on Apple Silicon Macs is less of one, but the support is uneven, at best. Universal Control quite literally bridges the gap.
To be sure, this is a power user feature — how many people not only want to use a Mac and an iPad at the same time but have the devices with them at most times to do so? Well, I do. But yeah, most people probably aren’t going to hugely benefit from this new devilry. But maybe others will get an iPad for their desk just to use it in this way. We’ll see.
It just works. And it’s just incredible that it does. One of the best, most magical experiences Apple has shipped in some time. And in a “dot” release for both iOS and macOS, no less.⁴ Now just bring it to the iPhone too, Apple.