Catalina’s Screen Time problems show an Apple stretched too thin

Screen Time is coming to macOS Catalina

macOS Catalina introduces new features and functionality for the Mac. Among them is Screen Time, the tool that enables users to see what apps and services they’re spending time using. Screen Time follows the convention of features that make their debut on iOS later migrating to the Mac. Unfortunately, Screen Time’s Mac implementation leaves something to be desired.

Screen Time’s intent is to make you more aware of where you’re spending your time – reading news, surfing the web, using social media apps, playing games. Just as important, Screen Time can provide essential details for parents concerned about their kids’ device usage. The app also provides parents with lock-out and limitings features to help reign in their kids’ use.

Not the Screen Time we need

For the past year, Screen Time has been the exclusive purview of the iPhone and iPad, but that changed with October’s release of Catalina, which brings Screen Time to the Mac. But Author, podcaster, and tech columnist Kirk McElhearn recently uncovered some troubling news about Catalina’s implementation of Screen Time. Kirk noted that the Catalina version of the app simply displays how long apps are open, rather than how long they’re being used.

So if I keep Safari open on my Mac all the time, it reports that duration – even if Safari is in the background while I’m doing other things, like writing this editorial. Like Kirk, I keep many apps open when I’m not using them – at the moment I have 11 apps open on my Mac. I quickly command-tab between them to get my work done. Knowing how long each has been open is not useful data to me – I want to know how long I’ve been actively using each one, and I’d prefer to know how I’m using it.

Screen Time Always Allowed on Mac

These are details that I can actually find and drill down into using third-party tracking activities. Such tools have been indispensable to me over the years as a freelancer, in order to effectively bill my clients for my time. But these apps cost money, and they’re from third party makers, which means their use is niche, at best.

There are other problems, too – the way the Mac version of Screen Time accounts for notifications, the way it accounts for “Pickups,” for example – the number of times you wake your Mac from sleep – all add up to one thing. It’s painfully obvious that Catalina’s implementation of Screen Time is little more than a rushed conversion of the iOS tool, with little, if any, thought about how different the Mac usage experience is, or what meaningful and useful data Mac users might need.

For years, we’ve been hearing dire warnings from prognosticators who are concerned about the “iOSification” of the Macintosh. Apple’s pushed back on this hysteria by saying that it fully recognizes Macs and Mac users are different than iOS and iOS users, and they consider the Mac and iOS devices to be distinct user experiences.

Setting the stage for the future

Yet blurring the lines between Mac and iOS is fine for Apple, and for Mac users, at least when it makes sense to do so – hence Apple’s Handoff technology. I love being able to take a photo on my iPhone from my Mac, for example, or open Safari on my Mac and go straight to the web page open on my phone. Draft an email on my phone then finish it off on my Mac? Perfect. When it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, even years after some of this tech debuted on the Mac.

We don’t need to fear these integrations when they happen, but we do need to be vigilant and stay wary when Apple gives the Mac short shrift, as I think it’s readily apparent they did with some aspects of Catalina. I’ll even give Apple the benefit of the doubt – for now – that Screen Time is a work in progress, rushed to market. It’s patently obvious that Apple stretched itself way too thin this year – there are way too many warts apparent in iOS and macOS, way too many growing pains that we as Apple device owners shouldn’t have to put up with.

Catalina is, without a doubt in my mind, one of the most divisive Mac system upgrades I can remember. Apple’s really upset a lot of long-standing developers for migrating to a radically more restrictive security model with this release; one that’s making it difficult if not impossible for some third-party app makers to update their software to work. And while Catalina’s 64-bit-only architecture shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s been getting dialog boxes warning them of needing to upgrade apps, that has predictably created a lot of user friction. It’s also generated a fair amount of head-scratching from Windows users who don’t understand why Apple has such a hard time managing this compared to Microsoft.

Make no mistake – Apple is playing the long game here, and Catalina is essential to pave the way for what’s to come on the Mac for the next decade, if not longer. Every time one of these tectonic shifts happens, there is discomfort from developers and users alike. You just have to think back to Apple’s shift from Motorola 68K to PowerPC, and from PowerPC to Intel, to see examples. Each time this happened, some users and some developers were left behind because they lacked the resources or the patience to make the move with Apple. I have no doubt Apple is developing ARM-based Macs to succeed the Intel-based Macs we use today, and some of the changes Apple has made in Catalina herald what’s to come.

But it’s essential that Apple makes sure that all of its platforms provide a superlative user experience. And when we suffer cracks in the wall, like a Mac implementation of Screen Time that feels much more “me too” than best of class, it shows Apple needs to reassess its priorities.

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