Why is Apple rolling out new OS features in February?

We’ve come to expect Apple to roll out new operating-system features on an annual cycle. Announce in June, ship in September or October, and spend the rest of the fall and spring fixing bugs and adding the features that didn’t get finished in time.

But this month, Apple rolled out new prerelease versions of its operating systems that are more than just bug fixes and make-goods on last June’s promises. (Though it’s still nice to see that folder sharing seems to finally be coming to iCloud Drive.)

I’m all for surprise late-winter gifts from Apple, but I have to ask the obvious question: Why now?

Toward a unified App Store

When Apple announced Mac Catalyst, the technology that makes it easier for iPad app developers to bring those apps to macOS, there was a wrinkle that a lot of developers didn’t see coming: Mac Catalyst apps weren’t able to be attached to their iOS equivalents in the App Store.

For some apps, that’s not a big deal. A lot of developers rely on separate sales to Mac and iOS to generate more revenue (while keeping the individual prices lower). The problem is when developers want to do things like offer Mac and iOS versions to anyone who bought the app, or include upgrades via in-app purchases, or tie usage to a subscription that’s administered directly in the app. For those features, the Mac and iOS apps must use the same app ID—and Apple didn’t allow it. (Developers can build their own workarounds for some of these features, but not app purchases themselves.)

Even before Mac Catalyst existed, this was an issue for app developers. But Mac Catalyst seemed to require this connection—and Apple failed to deliver. It looked like developers wouldn’t be able to tie their apps together until the fall of 2020 at the earliest. Some developers put their Mac Catalyst development plans on hold and moved on to other matters.

paroject catalyst mac Apple

Apple Project Catalyst being introduced at WWDC 2019.

Apparently Apple heard the outcry from at least some developers, because the latest beta versions allow any Mac app—not just Mac Catalyst apps!—to share their app ID with an iOS equivalent. And Apple has told developers to expect this feature to roll out to the public App Store in March.

So, why now? My guess is that Apple heard from a bunch of major developers that the lack of continuity for app purchases was a stumbling block for them. Apple’s in the business of increasing its services revenue anywhere and everywhere—and app purchases and subscriptions are services revenue. Also, this seems like as much a policy decision as a technical one, requiring relatively minimal development work in terms of apps and back-end systems.