“Project Catalyst”, the adaptation of iOS and UIKit unto macOS, is an unmitigated disaster. Maybe it didn’t have to be, but it definitely is. Let’s take one of the better in-box apps, Podcasts, as an example.
Podcasts is set up well for success - it is a relatively clean slice out of the now broken-up iTunes pie, it feels reasonably like a cohesive, first-class citizen app on iOS and it is an application with a handful of obvious actions and limited depth.
The Podcasts app that ships in macOS Catalina is not successful.
- Several months in, I still can’t get around the app that well, and that’s as a daily user of both iTunes (for over 15 years) and the iOS/iPadOS Podcasts app.
- Podcasts are inexplicably referred to as “shows”, perhaps because of potential mixups where “podcast” can mean both “the entire run” or “one episode in particular”. Wanting to resolve the mixup is fair enough, but the term “show” catches me by surprise since it’s not an anticipated noun, especially since “show” is a common UI verb.
- In iTunes, I could hit Command+L to jump to the currently playing episode selected in the list from which it was played and find another episode in the same podcast. In Podcasts, the shortcut doesn’t work, and there’s no persistent menu item - there is one in the little ellipsis/“More” menu next to the episode info in the top of the player, but the only way to trigger it is to click the More icon and pick it from the menu. I can go to System Preferences → Keyboard → Shortcuts → App Shortcuts and add a custom shortcut, and it appears on the menu item from the More menu, but because the menu is constructed on the fly, hitting the shortcut doesn’t trigger the command unless you have already clicked the More icon to open the menu.
- In the top right are buttons with an “info” icon and a “list” icon. Both trigger slide-in overlays from the edge - none have any mouse-over-effect to highlight that they are clickable beyond the miniscule icon itself, nor do they have tooltips showing the purpose of the buttons. And the overlay is a semi-transparent overlay and not an additional pane showing up persistently or a popover. [Update: this is also the case in the Music app — it’s still UI amateur hour.]
- There are almost no menu items for anything. Most things are iOS-style “link buttons” (with no delineating borders) in situ.
- The default view of the Podcasts section in iTunes - a sidebar with podcasts on the left and, when selected, lists of episodes to the right - is not available anywhere in the application. This is arguably the most natural view for any podcast application with a source-list-style sidebar. Instead, the source list contains various views of “Apple Podcasts” (which is half nebulous grouping of the podcasts available on Apple’s online podcast directory, half the application itself), “Library” and “Stations”, which seems to be the manually assembled playlists in iTunes with individual podcast episodes. “Stations”, in combination with “Shows” and with the Stations metaphor in Apple Music, evokes a function where you might be able to discover episodes in other podcasts similar to what you’re listening to. Instead, it seems like a word invented specifically to not be “playlist”.
- Of these views, the default view when opening the application can not be set to anything else than “Listen Now”, which contain “Up Next” entries that are completely baffling to me - they have nothing to do with the most recent episodes, alphabetical order of podcast or episode title, the most globally or personally popular podcasts or the podcasts I have added most or least recently. Below, the section “Recently played” has yet to actually change since starting to use Catalina.
- When in a podcast (“show”), if I want to see the episodes in the podcast’s feed aside from the ones I have somehow kept, I have to scroll manually all the way down to the list. I can not use Command+↓ - that lowers the volume. I can not use End or Page Down - that does nothing. While at the bottom, I can access See All Episodes, or the entire chunk of relevant UI that’s put below the list, like Ratings & Reviews and You Might Also Like. In iTunes, I could switch between “my” episodes and the feed by clicking another tab, and the set of tabs were always visible and didn’t scroll with the list.
- For no reason whatsoever, the top bar is semi-transparent, but the navigation bar containing only the back button way over on the left isn’t. This causes completely legible, non-blurred remnants of the “page” to shine through in an annoying way.
- Going to a podcast’s Settings opens an inexplicable fixed height “card view” in the middle of the window, with an iOS-style scrollable list, when all options would have been perfectly reasonable as a small popover or sheet, or have at least fit without scrolling if given more height. You also can’t hit Escape to close it.
- The Search field in the source list has an unclear sense of hierarchy - it seems like it should filter the source list, instead of activating a global search mode.
The longer I go, the more I could find, but I’m stopping here. There are so many problems here that I don’t know where to begin.
- Podcasts feels, more than anything else, as if it were modeled to be like iTunes but stripped off everything that wasn’t Podcasts, and then molded to sort of be like the new Music app. Podcasts was an island in iTunes - this is not a good idea.
- Podcasts pulls off the pirouette of both being annoyingly like iOS Podcasts in interface mannerisms but also feeling completely foreign to a devout iOS Podcasts user. I feel lost in the navigation choices made. The familiar tabs have been eschewed, and in its place is a pseudo-familiar ripped-from-Music organization, except that iTunes Podcasts never looked like that, and everything that was ever clever or easy or simple or handy or clear has been muddled.
- Podcasts for iOS makes choices that you have to make if you’re a mobile device application. You can’t afford tons of fixed real-estate, and having everything be an item in a list is a reasonable trade-off from fixed positions to having everything be able to be acquired (clicked, located, activated) in a reasonable time. But on macOS, there is, comparatively speaking, nothing but space. Showing a feed vs your own downloaded/kept episodes deserves a simple and present tab/segmented control, and got one in iTunes. Switching between podcasts by having them in the source list seems like a gimme - why not have a “Discover” section with the podcast directory, maybe a meta section with all the new stuff, and then a “Podcasts” sections with all the individual podcasts, one by one? (Bizarrely, Playback speed, which seems like it should be a popup choice near the play button, is only available from the menu bar, in a reversal of fortunes.)
Almost all of the odd choices can be boiled down to, in my mind: it would be terribly inconvenient to have a shared code base for apps that would actually behave so differently. They already do behave differently enough to be confusing, though, so I have no idea what’s going on.
Podcasts should be the optimal poster child for Catalyst because it exists on many platforms, and I think it could be made to work so much better by being responsive to ways in which a Mac is not an iOS device. But what upsets me is not a lack of polish as such, it’s that this was deemed anywhere near good enough to ship. It’s not a good podcasting app, it’s not a good Catalyst example, it’s not a good macOS citizen and it’s not even a good reincarnation of the Podcasts app. It’s just a mess.