It was a choice as controversial as it was spot-on, which over the following years allowed Apple to evolve its range of computers in line with competing PCs, significantly expanding the range of software, professional and otherwise, available for the platform.
The story could soon repeat itself and the Worldwide Developer Conference 2020 will remain in the annals for another similar announcement: the farewell to Intel processors on the Mac in favor of the ARM architecture, the same used on the series A chips that Apple implements in various versions on iPhone and iPad. This transition is discussed for some time nowi.e. how much iPads – especially the Pro series – and iPhones have shown how much the computing power of this architecture, with the right optimizations, can give a hard time even to the most powerful processors for laptops or desktops. Now, according to Bloomberg’s always well-informed sources, the moment is favorable: after at least a couple of years of internal tests and prototypes, Apple is ready to discover the cards and to make public the intention to say goodbye to Intel.
An epochal passage
It is not an easy choice and it will be an epochal transition for Apple: it will also require an adaptation period of at least three or four years during which Macs based on different architectures will have to coexist and talk to each other, just as happened after the passage to Intel of the 2005. This is why Apple will only make an announcement at WWDC, while the first “Macs with iPad processors” will arrive later, perhaps in the first half of 2021. It is important that the announcement is made in advance, however, to allow developers to start adapting its software to the new platform.
The strength of the App Store
However, completely overlapping the 2005 transition from Power PC to Intel to that of this year towards ARM platforms would be wrong. Unlike then, Apple has the App Store and the tens of thousands of developers who create software for iPhone and iPad: an army ready to move to the Mac platform at the signal of Tim Cook and his generals. Hundreds and hundreds of applications already available for iPhone and iPad, through development tools that Apple will inevitably unveil at WWDC, will be able to get to Mac quickly and quickly expand the range of applications available for Apple computers.
Those who fear that macOS may become a desktop version of iPadOS or iOS have nothing to worry about: although greater integration with iPad and iPhone will be inevitable (as well as desirable), macOS will remain an operating system oriented towards use on desktop computers and professional applications. The first software news could already arrive on macOS 10.16, expected (like iOS 14 and iPadOS 14) for the autumn. However, it will only be from the next versions of the operating system that the integration with the new ARM architecture will become deeper. In the meantime, developers may be offered special hardware kits to adapt their software, to be rented for the time necessary to make the transitions. A bit like what happened in 2005 and 2006 for the transition from PowerPC to Intel.
Because Intel is no longer doing well
The reasons that pushed Apple to make this transition are manifold. One of the most important is the need to independently monitor the technological evolution of the chips used on the Mac. While iPhone and iPad, with the A-series chips, have gained a serious competitive advantage over the competition (as demonstrated by the comparisons and benchmarks Macs have remained tied to the overly slow evolution of Intel’s chips.
Apple will thus take over the production of processors for its computers for the first time in its history (before Intel and PowerPCs, Macs implemented Motorola chips) and will have total control of the hardware and software. Among the important advantages of this choice there is also the significant improvement in thermal efficiency (sore note on many latest generation Macs), as well as in energy efficiency. In a nutshell: the batteries of the next generation Macs will last much longer: given the larger size compared to those of the iPad and iPhone, it cannot be excluded that the 2021 MacBook Pro can reach even more than a day of autonomy.
It’s not just Apple that tries
Together with the ability to manage mobile connections like on a smartphone, the extreme battery life is what has prompted some manufacturers such as Lenovo and ASUS to make laptops Windows based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon ARM processors. These are products that have not yet received the results and successes hoped for due to the structural limitations and still insufficient power, but they prove that running PCs on the very powerful processors of tablets and smartphones is an idea that appeals to everyone the industry, not just Apple. From his company, the Cupertino company has the opportunity to work on all aspects of the product, from the hardware platform to the software, while in the case of the competing products mentioned above, the underlying problem was the difficult integration between Qualcomm processors, the hardware third-party manufacturers and Microsoft’s operating system.
The ARM architecture chips that will arrive on the Mac will be more than one, probably differentiated according to the power. They will be produced on Apple design with TSMC’s 5nm technology, the important Taiwanese semiconductor “foundry” at the heart of the serious geopolitical dispute between the United States and Huawei. And not only will they be for laptops: according to Bloomberg, Apple plans to bring the ARM architecture to all its desktops. The reason is to be found in the extreme efficiency: the performance that can be obtained for each Watt of power required by ARM processors is far superior to that of Intel processors. A detail that, explains blogger John Gruber, does not change for desktop computers. In short, Apple has the potential to create new processors for its more powerful Macs that will make Intel eat the dust.
The long goodbye
It will not be a simple transition, it will take a few years, and the developers will have to be guided and helped to make the transition, while fundamental issues will have to be solved (i.e. the virtualization of other systems with Parallels and WMWare, or the future of Bootcamp to run Windows on Mac). However, it is an inevitable choice, at this point, given the conditions of Intel’s technological evolution and the still unexpressed potential of Apple’s AX processors on devices other than iPads and iPhones. It will be an interesting process to follow and a school case for professionals for the years to come, while for users, if Apple succeeds, almost nothing will change. Because in the end what a computer manages to do matters far more than the processor it uses to do it.