July 7 update below, post originally published July 4.
Every press launch has an element of hyperbole, and you can generally play buzzword bingo at most of the major events. Sometimes though a turn of phrase sounds a little bit out of place; the recent classic being Apple’s Phil Schiller portrayal of removing the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone as something that required “courage”.
The full quote is actually “The reason to move on: courage. The courage to move on and do something new that betters all of us,” with Schiller looking to frame Apple’s decision as something that changes the world.
Apple removed the floppy disk drive, and the rest of the industry followed. Apple removed the number pad from the phone, and the rest of the industry followed. And yes, Apple removed the headphone jack, and everyone followed. Is Apple going to follow the formula again and compel the desktop and laptop computing industry to break with Intel and move towards ARM architecture?
July 6 update: One of the curious benefits of Apple moving the Mac platform to ARM is the opportunity it offers to change the paradigm on how MacOS actually works. We’ve seen with the inclusion of technology such as the T2 security chip and the upcoming removal of Boot Camp that Apple is locking down the Mac platform. Will that go as far as locking down application installs, as is the model on iOS and iPad? Alex Cranz looked at the issue:
“Unlike iOS, macOS developers have always been able to skirt around using the Mac App Store. I can go to directly to a developer’s site for most apps and just buy what I want outside of the App Store. But how long will that continue in the future macOS landscape, particularly if the main people developing for the operating system are doing so alongside their iOS and iPadOS builds? Apple has repeatedly said it has no plans to turn macOS into a walled garden, as has always been the case with iOS and iPadOS, but it might effectively have done just that with the ARM switch.
Once more, this stands in stark contrast to Microsoft’s more open approach to legacy applications. While the Microsoft Store offers countless apps, Microsoft has made it clear that installing third-party apps (a phrase that has been minimised to ’side-loading’ in the smartphone space) continues on the new flavor of Windows 10:
“You can install 32-bit (x86), 32-bit (ARM32), and 64-bit (ARM64) Windows apps that aren’t available in the Microsoft Store in Windows. 64-bit (x64) apps won’t run. Peripherals and devices only work if the drivers they depend on are built into Windows 10, or if the hardware developer has released ARM64 drivers for the device.”
While MacOS on ARM will legitimize Windows 10 on ARM, Microsoft is retaining the open model for app distribution, while the spectre of a locked garden will haunt MacOS developers for some time.
July 7 update: Jason Perlow points out one of Microsoft’s biggest challenges compared to Apple… the number of legacy applications that Windows 10 supports and how difficult it would be to bring these apps into an ARM environment without significant overheads:
“There are some 35 million application titles and greater than 175 million application versions, which use APIs that go back at least 25 years.
“The Mac, by comparison, has only about 30,000 applications total, most of which use APIs that only go back about a decade. The company recently eliminated the use of all the legacy “Carbon” APIs from its classic OS that predated Mac OS X, in 2019 with Catalina, as well as support for all 32-bit apps.”
Perlow’s suggestion for the edge cases involves Microsoft using its cloud-based services to offer virtual machines and containerisation to users as services are required. You would then have Windows 10 on ARM providing the modern applications designed for the new chipset, and the cloud providing all the legacy support. The best of the old world and the new? It’s an interesting solution to a challenge that Microsoft faces as Apple pulls it forward.
Tim Cook has stated that the transition of the Mac platform to ARM will take two years, which I take to mean that each island in the Mac ocean will have an ARM machine; there will be a MacBook Air powered by ARM, a MacBook Pro ARM, an iMac, a Mac, and yes, even a Mac Pro. These will no doubt sit alongside the existing machines designed for Intel – which will be supported by MacOS versions in the future – but the real future belongs to ARM.
MacOS 11 ‘Big Sur’ drops support for a number of older Mac machines, but you will still be able to update and run Big Sur on the veterans such as an early 2015 Macbook, a mid 2014 iMac, and a late 2013 MacBook Pro. Appleis to be commended for offering a seventh year of OS support to the MacBook Pro, but that’s surely the last version this laptop will get. I’d expect Apple’s support of the older Intel machines to shorten over the next few years.
Intel and ARM will live on side by side, but it’s not going to be an equal partnership. Even without Cook’s two-year warning, it’s clear that Intel will be eased out into a supporting role. Any newly purchased Mac should come with a health warning; this Intel powered machine may not be supported for as long as think it wiil
Apple’s ARM chips promise better battery life, improved connectivity, and an increase in power. If Cook is saying ‘two years’ then it’s a pretty safe bet that the new Mac machines put on sale in 2022 will all be ARM-powered and have equal or better performance than the machines on sale today.
You know who else would like a laptop with better battery life, improved connectivity, and equal or better performance to today’s models? Every other computer manufacturer.
ARM’s move towards desk-bound computers has not gone unnoticed by Microsoft. Windows 10 on ARM does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s Windows 10, and it runs on ARM hardware. With the ARM-powered Surface Pro X, Microsoft showcased the product in the high-end Surface portfolio.
It is very early in the days of Windows 10 on ARM, and the Pro X was as much a demonstration of Microsoft’s view of ARM-powered computing as it was a bleeding-edge piece of hardware. It showed that the issues around app compatibility had been addressed, although not perfectly. As well as apps specifically compile for ARM, it would also run x86 apps designed for Intel-based machines, albeit only those targeting 32 bit Intel chips.
Nevertheless, the package presented to the public essentially works. I’d expect the same to be the case when Apple sells its first ARM-powered Mac machine – likely to be a MacBook Pro variant launched at the end of 2020. The Surface brand is used in part as a technology demonstrator. In the past it has shown the capabilities of Windows 10 and Microsoft’s cloud-based services, to promote the idea of the 2-in-1 tablet format, the ultraportable Surface Laptop, pushing the design envelope with the Surface Book, and the massively useful Surface Studio.
Now it’s the turn of the Surface range to demonstrate Windows’ future with ARM to the rest of the ecosystem.
Herein lies the question. If the ARM architecture offers manufacturers a better feature set, if ARM can match the performance of the equivalent Intel chips, and if Apple’s laptops and desktops are pulling ahead because of its use of ARM technology, will rival manufacturers decide to pivot away from Intel – perhaps not for every single computer, but to stay in the game there will be far more ARM computers out there.
Apple’s leadership role will be validated. Diminishing Intel’s ability to define the future of computing, putting clear water between MacOS and Windows 10, and watching the competition try to catch up on a position it has already solidified?
That’s something worth labelling as ‘courage’
Now read more about Apple’s surprising Mac Pro offer…