Applescript, iOS and Apple’s Evolution

Posted on December 12, 2012
Filed Under Commentary | 6 Comments


John Gruber has a short article in MacWorld on the persistence of Applescript. Regular readers know that I think for most users needing automation that Automator simply is the better choice. Power users will quickly come up against the limits of Automator though. Applescript is ideal for them. However while Applescript has persisted in an unlikely way, the fact is that it’s received little love of late. Some key programs have broken, partial or even lacking Applescript.

Numbers has partial Applescript support but you can’t even create a document in a straightforward way. Preview doesn’t support Applescript at all. Safari has some Applescript support but one wishes it was more extensive. Third party apps have slowly been drifting away from Applescript — often choosing to use their own Javascript scripting if they support scripting at all.

I remain convinced that we’ll see a period of merging of iOS and OSX for a while and then an aggressive differentiation. The reasons are clear. Eventually an iPad will do most of what 80% or so of people need. As iOS becomes more powerful (and it’s almost there now) there will be no need for a Mac. Further at some point the quick upgrade cycle of every two years or sooner will cease. Tablets will be upgraded the way laptops are now because they are simply “good enough” for most use. That means people will upgrade their iPads more like they do their MacBook Airs. Further the market in the US will become more saturated so we won’t have the huge growth in sales we have now. That’ll mean Mac sales and Tablet sales become more similar.1 The distinction between Tablet and Mac sales will primarily be how much the user requires apps to do. In other words it’ll be a distinction between pro and casual users.2

Once you have a firm distinction between pro and casual users and the relative growth of one sector over the other shrinks then I think Apple will inevitably start focusing in on what makes each platform unique. For pro users that means a return to scriptability. Right now Apple’s focus is on security and feature parity. That’s because the iPad can’t yet do everything even casual users need. Once iCloud and sandboxing become mature Apple’s focus will inevitably change.3 There are two ways that change can go. We may see a merging of iOS and OSX. Once I thought that might happen. After using Win8 I’m not sure Apple wants to do that. If they do that in some fashion it’ll probably be to add touch to OSX and allow iPad apps in a window on OSX.4 

A lot hinges upon what happens in the desktop market. Right now that market is both quite mature but also not terribly innovative. Google has unsuccessfully pushed Chromebooks but hasn’t made an impact. Win8 is really much more about Tablet and pseudo-tablet laptops than it is traditional desktop computing. However business and pro-users depend upon desktops. While the fight today and probably tomorrow is over casual consumers eventually that market will become mature. Further if Microsoft fails on tablets look for it to double down on desktops and more desktop oriented laptop use. It’s its key market and arguably the enterprise and business is a huge portion of its sales. Once Microsoft focuses there then Apple can either drop OSX and cede the pro market or, as I suggest, refocus on it somewhat.

The point of this long argument is simply to point out that eventually Apple will either drop the Mac and become a purely consumer oriented causal user company or more likely return focus to the desktop. Once it focuses on pro users then it will almost certainly refocus on Applescript or a successor. The fact Applescript has been fairly moribund for five or six years shouldn’t be taken as an indication about the future. I’d argue that while the pro market is small relative to the consumer market it still generates enough money that we shouldn’t expect Apple to simply neglect it.

Even today while OSX hasn’t received the focus iOS has, there have been a surprising number of updates.  Admittedly many of these updates (iCloud, some shared appearance with iOS, etc.) are primarily focus on driving support for iOS there have also been other improvements. Apple can’t simply abandon the desktop if only because it needs the desktop for its own development needs. (Both internal development and to ensure a good environment for iOS developers) Most developers would never be satisfied trying to develop on an iPad directly.

I’ll lay really good odds that within two years we’ll start to see both Android and iOS maturing and a doubling down on the desktop. My prediction is that we’ll start to see a successor to AppKit5 as well as more and more UIKit frameworks and libraries appearing on OSX.6 We’ll then see more unique power user frameworks and tools. I predict a successor to Applescript rather than the expansion of Applescript. But I’m simply not sure the direction Apple plans to take sandboxing nor how much that was affected by internal politics related to Scott Forstall.7


  1. I’d expect Tablet sales to be at least 4:1 to Mac sales, although I have no idea what the ratio will actually be – I just don’t think we’ll see a sharply different growth curve in the US. International sales will probably continue to propel the iPad but eventually that market will mature as well.
  2. I’m saying Tablet rather than iPad since it’s plausible that Apple continues to bifurcate that market and make a larger iPad as well as the smaller one. The iPhone serves, I think, a rather different use. It’ll be interesting to see if the iPad Mini impacts iPhone sales. There are rumors of a 4.5″ iPhone for next year to better compete with Android. Will that really be a smaller iPad or a larger iPhone? I think a larger iPhone would be harder to pull off in a fashion that is compelling due to the way Apple handles its resolution. But then I’m still skeptical Apple will have a 4.5″ – 5″ form factor.
  3. I’m assuming Apple gets its act together and actual solves its many problems with iCloud and sandboxing. Not a sure thing of course but enough depends upon it that I think they will eventually.
  4. A lot here depends upon their plans for chips. There are rumors already of the iPad possibly moving to Intel. I’m skeptical but that would open up a lot for handling iPad and OSX overlap. Apple could just allow cross compilation so new iPad apps simply run on OSX via a fat binary. Of course Apple could just as easily allow that without moving the iPad to Intel’s Atom processors.
  5. Appkit is the main Cocoa framework for applications on OSX.
  6. UIkit is the framework for iOS apps.
  7. If, as I suspect, a lot of direction of OSX was pushed if only indirectly by Scott Forstall, we should see some big changes over the next two years.


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  • has

    “I think Apple will inevitably start focusing in on what makes each platform unique. For pro users that means a return to scriptability. … I predict a successor to Applescript rather than the expansion of Applescript.”

    Sorry to rain on your parade, but three things:

    1. You’re conflating IPC with [end-user] scripting. Everybody does, even Apple, but the inability to clearly distinguish between the two one of the major reasons the Apple event/AppleScript stack is the mess it is today. It’s important to be clear on the difference because Apple will almost certainly take a different approach to each (e.g. replace one with something completely different, leave the other to die out).

    2. Apple don’t give two shits about scripting in general any more, never mind end-user oriented scripting which is an especially hard nut to crack. Their only interest is what puts apps in their app store, i.e. ObjC. They’ve starved AppleScript of resources, they’ve abandoned plans to include the excellent MacRuby language in the OS and no longer sponsor it (Laurent Sansonetti, its author, quit Apple in response), they’ve dumped the Xcode templates for PyObjC & co, and they’ve always run lukewarm-to-cool on other languages such as Python for as long as they’ve included them.

    3. We can already see the future direction of IPC on OS X in XPC Services. Low-level, ad-hoc, programmer-oriented, fine-grained messaging, distributed objects. About as far from Apple events’ semi-RESTful RPC + relational query approach – which treats it as a high-level user-oriented UI design problem – approach as you can get. OO developers simply don’t grok REST; they’re too limited and hidebound in their thinking, and have no interest in changing. Whatever vision the original AS team had is long dead, even the current AS team – what there is of it – don’t appear to care any more.

    Apple’s whole direction is towards a locked-down end-to-end content delivery system. Which is absolutely fine and profitable as a business model; it just isn’t hacker friendly is all.

  • Clark

    Well I don’t think the IPC vs. end user scripting distinction is that relevant to my argument. The point I’m making is really about end user scripting. Right now they don’t care. My argument is that within 2 – 5 years the incentives will change and they’ll even completely abandon the pro market to Microsoft or else they’ll start carrying.

    Right now things are a mess because frankly the consumer is fast growing, there’s tons of competition, and that’s where’s the money at. Once the consumer market gets mature then the incentives simply change. My prediction is that Apple will care again, but don’t expect much over the next couple of years.

  • has

    Even if they did start caring again (which I doubt), I can’t help but feel they’ve already burned the people needed to make it successful. See the pro video market, for example. Apple are vicarious; folks whose livelihoods are critically dependent on some sort of stability and predictability aren’t going to throw their eggs in Apple’s basket if they’ve any sense left in their heads. This runs all the way from little folks like me or Laurent up to the big guns Adobe and Microsoft.

    Apple do some great hardware design and their supply channel and marketing management is first rate, but when it comes to software development they are beyond myopic. And I honestly don’t believe they possess the awareness, never mind the talent, to break out of that hole. I think Google are going to kick all their asses, which is not exactly an appealing prospect either, but really they’re all moustache-twirling villains when it comes down to it.

  • Clark

    I think Google has their own problems. I’m not as pessimistic as you are, but you’re right that Apple is a bit myopic. That’s partially due to the way their management culture is. There’s a lot of focus that’s determined by management. But with so many products and a huge competition with Android they can only pay attention to so much else. Everything else seems like it doesn’t get enough management supervision and ends up sucking.

    Honestly I think they’ve really struggled the past two years despite simultaneously having had some amazing product introductions. Yet there are simultaneously a number of failures. I’m really hoping the management shakeup this fall improves things a lot. But I don’t think we’ll start to see whether Cook has improved things until next fall at the earliest.

    All that said, I’m really just only looking at the incentives on Apple. And I think the incentives are bound to change once the market matures.