An iPhone running macOS apps could be all the computer you need [Opinion]

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An iPhone running Mac apps could replace a Mac mini
An iPhone capable of running macOS software on an external display would be a game changer.
Concept: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

Macs will soon use Apple Silicon, the same type of proprietary processors found in iPhones. And an unconfirmed report indicates that Apple is exploring ways to let iPhones run Mac apps on an external display.

If true, an iOS handset could be all the computer many consumers need. They’d never have to buy a Mac again.

Combining the portability of iPhone with the power of macOS

“iPhone with MacOS,” says Mauri QHD in a tweet, the source for this leak. “Apple working on Linda/Dex type of prototypes,” he continues. “the software work on it is insane.”

Just so there’s no confusion, this doesn’t mean that Apple plans to cram full-size Mac apps on an iPhone display. That’s obviously impractical to everyone.

But to understand what Mauri QHD thinks is really happening, you need to know about Samsung DeX. Plug a Galaxy handset with DeX into a monitor and keyboard, and Android apps formatted for a larger display appear on the second screen.

This tipster says a DeX-like solution is in the works for iPhone and macOS apps. If it comes to fruition, someone could connect a monitor, keyboard and mouse to their iPhone and it would literally be a Mac.

This wasn’t possible before because Mac software ran only on Intel processors. But Apple is dumping Intel in favor of its own chips. As these are same chips that are in iPhones, an iOS device could run the Mac apps if it had the right operating system. That’s what Apple is supposedly creating.

There are obvious advantages. There’s no need to buy a desktop just to run Mac apps. And users wouldn’t have to worry about their files being spread around between different devices. They would only need one computer, and it would always be with them. Companies could give employees an iPhone that they could dock anywhere to use as both a phone and a desktop.

All files in the handset’s storage could be accessible from iOS and macOS software. A user could, for example, edit a document with the iOS version of Apple Pages when away from their desk, then open the same file with the macOS version of Pages when they’re back in the office.

What about MacBooks?

While an iPhone running macOS might replace a desktop Mac, it’s less useful when on the go. Someone would need to carry around an external screen, keyboard and mouse to get the same experience as using a MacBook.

That’s where the reference to “Linda” comes in from Mauri QHD’s tweet. Razr’s Project Linda was a prototype laptop shell. Users would plug their phone into a slot in the shell to add a mobile screen and keyboard to access Android apps on the larger display. It was similar to DeX, but for use when on the move.

Project Linda was unveiled in 2018 and went exactly nowhere. It likely foundered on the obvious question: If you’re going to carry around something that looks like a laptop, why not make it a real one? An Apple version would likely face the same complaints.

That said, this setup would allow people to upgrade their iPhone every couple of years with a faster processor and more storage, but continue to use the same screen/keyboard shell. No more paying high prices for a new MacBook.

Don’t forget iPad and Mac apps

If Apple does add the ability for iPhone to run Mac apps on an external display, it would be comparatively easy to do the same on iPad. It’s not yet clear if that’s the plan, though.

Early in June, Mauri QHD wrote on Twitter, “Apple working on prototypes of an iPad with iPadOS and MacOS.”

It’s not known if he means this literally: putting macOS on an iPad. While the impending move to Apple Silicon makes this feasible, macOS and all third-party software were designed to be used with a keyboard and trackpad/mouse. They include tiny buttons and controls built for an on-screen cursor. Users would get very frustrated trying to operate a MacPad with a virtual keyboard and fingertip.

The other possibility is that Apple tablets would have just the same ability as this company’s handsets. iPads could run macOS applications only on an external screen. But this would give users a computer that’s just as useful as iPad is now, but with additional functionality when a larger display is available.

An iPhone running Mac apps is a brilliant possibility

Some of us at Cult of Mac talked over this idea and we couldn’t find any serious flaws. And we see enormous advantages from users who can avoid buying both an iPhone and a Mac.

Especially as there’s nothing here to even hint that Apple is considering killing off the Mac or MacBook in favor of the iPhone running Mac apps. There are too many macOS users who either need more computer power or simply want more. There’s no way a graphics professional could ever get by on the processing power of a handset, for example.

If the unconfirmed report comes to fruition, this will likely be a feature for consumers, students and light-duty businesspeople. Say, anyone who could get by with a base-model Mac mini.

But some big questions remain. Will iPhones really run macOS on the second screen, or just something that looks like it and is capable of running Mac software? Will iPhones run off-the-shelf macOS applications, or will developers have to create special versions for this feature? What accessories will be supported? Will this feature debut in iOS 15 or later?

Whatever the answers, this could really remake the computer market. Apple supposedly understands that. “i can’t even tell you how excited they [Apple] are about the whole thing,” says Mauri QHD. Me too.