Apple MacBook Pro (M1): Initial iPhone and iPad App Compatibility

Posted on January 30, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in iOS, Mac and macOS, iPadOS with 28 Comments

One of the key benefits of Apple moving the Mac to its M1 chipset is that users will be able to run iPhone and iPad apps natively. But this was one of the areas I never got to with my Mac Mini (M1) articles. So let’s take a look at how this compatibility works now, with the understanding that this is a moving target and that things should improve steadily going forward.

This kind of iPhone and iPad app compatibility relies on the M1 chip: Macs running on Intel hardware can only run apps that were converted for the Mac through Catalyst. But finding compatible iPhone and iPad apps is the first challenge. A quick Google search provided the obvious answer: These apps are available in the Mac App Store, which makes perfect sense. From what I can see, Apple doesn’t call out iPhone and iPad apps in the Store, or provide a special area where you can find these apps. Instead, there are two key methods for installing iPhone and iPad apps.

The first is to use search. For example, if you search for Microsoft Office in the Mac App Store, you’ll get a Mac Apps result page by default. But you can select the “iPhone & iPads Apps” link instead to see the available mobile apps.

Those particular results are … disappointing. The Mac Apps results include Microsoft 365, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and so on, as one might expect. But the iPhone and iPad apps results only show third-party apps and utilities. Searches for terms like “Microsoft Word” work similarly.

So why is this? It’s because the Mac App Store doesn’t simply surface every single iPhone and iPad app for Mac users. Instead, developers must choose to include their mobile apps in the Mac App Store. And Microsoft, which already makes full-featured desktop apps for Mac, has elected not to.

The second method for finding iPhone and iPad apps in the Mac App Store is to view the list of apps (and games) you previously downloaded on an i-Device. These are available via your profile picture in the bottom left of the Mac App Store: Click that to display the Account page, which shows your previously downloaded Mac apps in reverse chronological order. And then click the “iPhone & iPad Apps” link to show those apps.

As with the search-based example above, this list will be filtered so that it only displays the apps you downloaded that support being in the Mac App Store. I don’t know when I downloaded Microsoft Office for the iPhone, for example, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not there in the list. (Also, some kind of toggle that would let one display these apps alphabetically or by category would be nice.)

If you look carefully at the apps that do appear, you’ll see that some are denoted with “Designed for iPad” (or iPhone) text. These apps are known to work on the Mac as well. Some apps have a note like “Designed for iPhone. Not verified for macOS,” and these … well, these haven’t really been tested, so who knows how well they will work? I assume this simply means that the developer OK’d the app’s inclusion in the Mac App Store (and hope that this indicates some level of trust in its compatibility and performance.)

To test how these apps work, I selected a few iPhone and iPad apps that I had previously downloaded. HBO Max, for example, is designed for iPad and so should work well. It starts up quickly enough and seems to run fine, and like other iPad apps, it appears in an iPad-shaped window that only occupies roughly 50 percent of the screen by default.

There’s no way to resize it per se, but you can at least maximize it, which makes it full screen, and in this mode, there are back empty areas on the left and right of the app display because iPads have 4:3 displays and Macs have wider 16:10 displays.

After the initial excitement of seeing an iPad app running on the Mac wore off, some harsh realities emerged. Using HBO Max to play the movie Die Hard, I can see that this wide aspect ratio movie now has black empty areas both on the top and bottom of the movie display, which is normal, and on the right and left, too: Again, the app is oriented for a 4:3 display, so you can’t play the movie in a real full-screen mode.

(Red area indicates where the movie playback is occurring as you can’t take a screenshot of that)

As bad, typical keyboard commands—like tapping the Space bar for Play/Pause—don’t work. Instead, you have to use the mouse to emulate finger taps on the screen. So you can click the middle of the display to show the controls, and then click the Play button to pause playback. It’s a bit tedious. (Tapping the Esc key while in full-screen mode does revert the app to windowed mode, which is nice.)

This is, of course, app-specific. It’s possible for a developer to tailor an iPhone or iPad app so that it works better on a Mac. HBO has not done that for HBO Max, and my guess is that they won’t because they already have a full-featured web app that works great on the Mac. But that’s up to them.

The iPhone game Doodle Jump is another cautionary tale: This game is now several years old—apparently, I first installed it on August 2, 2009—but it is listed as being “Designed for iPhone,” so it should work. If so, I never figured it out: Doodle Jump appears in a tiny iPhone-sized window, and it also cannot be resized.

That said, the full-screen experience is pretty good, and similar to what you see when you run an iPhone app zoomed on an iPad.

But actually playing Doodle Jump was beyond my skills. You can tap on buttons like Play and Multiplayer to get things going, but once you’re in a game, it’s not clear how you control the little on-screen sprite. On a phone, you can tilt the device left and right to move, and you can touch the screen to shoot. On a Mac, there’s no to tilt the thing that I can figure out, though clicking when the mouse cursor is over the game does shoot.

Are these two apps great examples of … anything? Maybe not. But when I think about the types of mobile apps I could see using on a desktop system like the Mac, it’s a pretty short list. And Apple makes it tedious to even find what’s out there. I did a few searches for mobile apps I could imagine wanting to use, like Spotify, Fitbit, and Instagram, but none are currently available on the Mac. There are no Google apps there. No Microsoft apps. Etc.

Given that, this is a topic I’ll revisit in the future. For now, I’ll just say that the performance seems excellent and that compatibility is the primary problem. Not just via availability, but in that some of the apps that are available don’t really work all that elegantly. But I expect that to change.

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Comments (28)

28 responses to “Apple MacBook Pro (M1): Initial iPhone and iPad App Compatibility”

  1. prebengh

    As far as I know you cannot run iPhone and iPad apps on Intel based Macs. A few runs through Catalyst, I think that it mostly a few of Apples own apps.

  2. mattbg

    I get that they have longer-term objectives around their SoC, but if they could write an effective translation layer to run all manner of x86 apps on M1, I wonder why they couldn't have written one to run their ARM apps on x86? It seems like the latter would be easier than the former. Or maybe it's just as simple as their long-term priority having been to move toward their own CPU.

    • Paul Thurrott

      They could do that. I suspect they're incented not to, so that this can be another selling point for M1-based Macs.
    • rob_segal

      In reply to mattbg:

      That would not be a good use of resources when Apple's goal is to transition all of their Macs to their own silicon. Those resources and hours are better spent trying to improve that experience on the M1 and their future chips.

      • wright_is

        In reply to rob_segal:

        Exactly. It wouldn't be a good use of resources. And, given that ARM runs faster than Intel already, it would probably not be such a good experience, having slow and laggy iOS apps running on macOS under Intel.

  3. Saarek

    This move worries me, although I appreciate why they are doing it.

    Part of what I love about the Mac is that, generally speaking, most of the softwre written for it is of a high quality and follows the Mac GUI guidelines. I was always more than happy to trade the near unlimited software options available to Windows for the smaller but higher quality set on the Mac Side.

    Apple's app store is the best app store, no question there, but along with all of the killer apps the majority is a load of dross and the thought of people running poor quality unoptimised apps from the iOS app store that have not been specifically designed for the Mac....... Yuck.

    This move, to my mind, is an assualt on the Mac experience. It's going to be a race to the bottom in terms of software quality where developers don't bother making a proper Mac version because they can point at the iOS one and say "there, use that".

  4. wright_is

    It isn't really surprising that the Microsoft apps, for example, are missing. They already have native apps for most of them, so there is "little point" in making the iPad/iPhone versions available, it would probably cause more confusion.

    If there is no app on macOS, making the iOS version available makes some sense, although the dev needs to make sure that it works, as per your couple of examples.

  5. derekaw

    Take a look at iMazing. This App allows you to install any iPhone or iPad app on your M1 Mac, even apps the developer flagged as not available for the Mac. It’s interesting to play with but has its downsides like the apps installed via iMazing wont get updated and you need to manage this yourself.

    I got the iPad YouTube app for my MBP but I found the web browser version worked better.

  6. angusmatheson

    This feature didn’t even dawn on me when I set up an M1 MacBook Air for one of the doctors (who refuses to use Windows who I am thinking is smarter than I was my surface pro 7 refused to recognize it’s attached keyboard despite drivers and hard resets snd everything else I could throw at it for a week then miraculously started working again). With Paul’s reminder I just wrote her and asked her if she wants any of her phone apps on her laptop. And she said no. This feature on Android, MacOS, snd Windows seem to me investing in the future. The power of desktop computing is the vast catalogue of programs which have been written over the years. But the majority of current development seems to be for mobile platforms - and making an easy way to have these on desktop in the future makes sense. A little rough now doesn’t matter because desktop computing now doesn’t need mobile apps now. Getting it out early is good, because the apps of the future will be built with this in mind. This was the dream of Windows universal apps that died so terribly. Apple and android will be able to tell us if it was a good idea at all.

  7. b6gd

    This is the same problem for other platforms. Android apps on ChromeOS are often wonky as heck and just don't look or feel right.

    For me its not that I can run a iOS on my M1 Mini its that the developer can very easily make Mac apps now with some minor UI changes. 90+% of coding is done already. There is huge potential for a flood of apps coming over from iOS.

    All that said pricing remains to be seen. Computer apps often cost more. I think a lot of developers have blocked their apps to both fix the UI and figure out what to charge.

    • Truffles

      In reply to b6gd:

      Desktop pricing will be a key problem existing macOS devs need to come to terms with. The App Store succeeded in collapsing software prices because it made distribution really cheap while simultaneously opening up a huge (and rapidly growing) market of willing buyers. Conversely, the Mac appstore hasn't succeeded in cutting prices because the Mac market isn't expanding at anywhere near the rate of the iPhone market - there's no gold rush mentality like there was for iOS development.

      My guess is that Apple has decided to attack the problem from the other direction - make it really cheap for iOS devs to add macOS functionality thereby helping the macOS customer base even though there's limited growth potential.

  8. matsan

    Just my $0.02 - I'd love to have Sonos iOS app running on the Mac because Sonos has decided to let the Desktop Controller wither and slowly die. Getting the full Sonos experience as provided in the iOS app would be huge!

    Another app I'd love to have available is the MiniBrew beer keg controller app.

    (I must admit I haven't checked if these apps are available as M1 apps in the Store).

  9. markbyrn

    Thanks for the 'second method' tip on finding compatible apps to download.

  10. retcable

    Perhaps Microsoft has not enabled app discovery for M1 Macs yet because the apps just don't work well on this new platform? I would imagine this is the case since it is so new and they know that users would be sorely disappointed and angry if the installed an app on their device and it did not work as advertised or they lost all their work because of some catastrophic bug.

  11. nbplopes

    As expected the iOS apps performance is top notch in the M1. Yet are less usable in the macOS than in iOS.

    I understand that iOS to macOS app compatibility is very much a subject of interest from a Windows user stand point. After all it was central to MS marketing around Windows (Phone) 10 and UWP for years. From a Mac user perspective I believe not so much as macOS does not really lack apps. It may lack innovative apps, but ...

    What I do think is that its interesting from a dev perspective. In particular an iOS only dev can simply allow the app to be downloaded in macOS in its less usable form and check out how interested the user base is in having it in such an environment. Call a proof of concept. The dev just needs to check the downloads numbers and feedback. It might be an indicator to than develop better support or a better app for macOS altogether in exchange for some more $$.

  12. prebengh

    So you could only find apps that didn’t work well?

    Which Microsoft iPhone/iPad apps would you need that are not already on the Mac Appstore optimized for M1?

  13. saint4eva

    Not much, though.

  14. reformedctrlz

    I’m not sure if this effects anything, but the HBO max app doesn’t support keyboard commands on the iPad either. Some apps have updated to include this support (such as netflix and youtube) so it could be that the keyboard limitation here is because HBO hasn’t done any work to utilize the keyboard in the app at all.

    I’m definitely interested in seeing more apps updated to include this type of functionality, since it’ll mean the apps or more useful on both platforms :)

  15. IanYates82

    Apple's approach of having devs write to specific dimensions was good for a while with developer simplicity, but has made a rod for their back with being able to add new form factors or adjust to new devices. Remember when iPhones got bigger and everyone had to rush to update their apps? If they'd taken the chance at that time to encourage more relative-sizing layouts then the black-bar issue so horribly demonstrated by HBO Max may never have materialised.

  16. rosyna

    Having your iOS app available on Apple Silicon Macs is an opt-out decision by the developer. If the developer never changed the default and no one gave the all-clear, you’ll get the “not verified on macOS” text.

    If AT&T wanted to support keyboard shortcuts, they’d add such support for the iPad keyboard in the HBO Max app and those would would on macOS.

    And obviously, if an app is available on the Mac App Store (like Office, et cetera), the iOS versions won’t be available.

  17. christophercollins

    Apple states that Gyrosope games won't run on mac's properly since it lacks the hardware.

    I'm a PC guy in a 75% PC world at work, but I've always used MBP's due to their great trackpads (over 10 years of them).

    I have an M1, but have never used the iPhone app feature, so I'm looking forward to your thorough review. Like you, I use web apps for things and haven't seen the need to install anything.

    Can you put more than one on screen? I could imagine lining up Twitter, Reddit, and FB on one virtual desktop to monitor feeds. My use case usually involves me making three or four desktops with the apps I need open while working (Jump Desktop (great VNC/RDP app), iMessage on one, browser on two, and typically two full screen VNC connections on three and four. Then I three finger swipe between desktops.

    Chrome doesn't hurt the M1 either, of course Edge is fine too. In both performance and battery life, the M1 build of Chrome is really good. They released first, so I downloaded it first. Too many sites I need have scrolling issues in Safari, so I rarely use it.

  18. shark47

    Now, if they made a Mac with a touchscreen...