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Dev Corner Editorial

Dawn of an ARMy: Just how influential will Apple’s move to ARM based CPUs for Macs be?

Here comes Apple’s ARMy….get it?

A few months ago at their World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) Apple announced their in-motion plan to move to ARM-based processors named Apple Silicon. We had speculated about it before, and the tech press has spent the last few months speculating just how influential this move might be, for Apple and the rest of the tech industry. But with Apple’s upcoming November 10 event where they will likely announce these new ARM-based Macs, it’s time we take one more stab at talking about Apple using similar processors in Macs to the ones it uses in iPhones, and not just how it affects you, but how it can change computers as we know them.
So the nitty-gritty techy stuff of why ARM CPUs are a significant change from Apple’s current Intel x86 ones (as well as the whole RISC architecture vs CISC architecture stuff) can be see in the pretty technical video above courtesy of Engadget. However, we’re not really here to jump into that. In fact here’s the big reasons Apple wants to move to ARM processors, for those who didn’t read the last article:
  1. They’re potentially faster or “more powerful” : The whole reason Apple is even embarking on this move is because of the strides they’ve made with their A Series chips on the iPhone and iPad over the past few years. The chips are essentially lauded as being some of the best performing processors on the planet and this is because of the deep system level integration of the processors and Apple’s iOS , a benefit it has due to producing it’s own hardware and software. Apple wants to do the same with MacOS and based on how well they can do it, we could see cheaper to manufacture Macs outperforming the best Intel based machines and possibly making everyone rethink using a Windows PC.
  2. Power efficiency: Apple’s ARM based designs are essentially mobile chips originally intended for smartphones, this means power to performance ratio is of uttermost importance to them as they have to save battery in smartphones. Apple’s iPads are especially lauded as battery champs even with some pretty regular use and if ARM based laptops follow the same path, well there could be some very interesting changes to how we use laptops if they last all day.
  3. Design and aesthetics” I’ve said this before, the iPad Pro disappoints me because it’s easily one of the most attractive computers on the market yet it essentially runs ahandicapped operating system in iOS/iPadOS. Well what if you stopped needing the iPad as a whole and could just get a very thin, elegant, beautifully designed MacBook that was just as light to carry and even faster. It almost sounds like a dream come true, but this is the exact appeal Apple wants when it shows these machines on Tuesday.
So know why Apple wants to do this, and most of us can see what the benefits are supposed to be. The obvious next question would be “can it be done”, and right now the answer is “probably”.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro X is essentially the flagship Windows 10 on ARM device
You see Apple isn’t actually the first on the scene with ARM-based PCs, in fact Microsoft  and friends has been taunting ARM-based Windows machines for the past 3 years, and bit by bit they’ve been going from a seemingly experimental , kind of cool segment for nerds to try out, to a more robust, niche customer worthy segment of product which at least some people can use. But in typical Apple fashion, they waited out the competition to make all the necessary mistakes, while they seemingly prepared a better solution in secret. Windows on ARM PCs have been plagued by compatibility issues as most Windows apps are made for x86 CPUs like the ones you use on your PC today, hence Microsoft has had to resort to all sort of tricks from emulation to web apps to recompiling apps just to get them to work even on flagship devices like the Surface Pro X.
Once a joke, project Catalyst is Apple’s big secret weapon to making new ARM based versions of existing x86 Mac apps
How will Apple’s own approach be any different, well the biggest factor here is likely Project Catalyst. You see while Apple does aim to emulate some Apps as well through Rosetta 2, the big bet it’s placing its money on is Catalyst, which started as a seemingly trivial project to turn iPad Apps into Mac apps. Catalyst  and it’s more evolved updated versions are essentially going to be the backbone of the future of Mac app development, as while these new Macs will actually be able to run iOS apps like Instagram or DarkSky due to using the same processors as iPhones, they’ll obviously need more optimized versions of the apps that take advantage of a mouse and keyboard, possibly higher performance and of course the user interface  of MacOS . Hence Apple essentially plans to have the iOS versions of these apps become the basis of the new Mac apps that will be made for their new processors. Adobe has already announced that it’s working on a whole new creative suite for these new Macs and you can bet they’ll likely be looking at their base code for their existing iOS apps as a starting point. And how does this help these new Macs have acceptable app compatibility?  Well iOS has one of the largest developer communities in the world  and many of these developers will likely rush at the chance to push a lot of their apps to MacOS. Hence while there’s obviously going to be a transition period of some apps being missing, chances are the abundance of iOS based apps along with Apple taking care of the essentials (i.e. Adobe) will tide people long enough until all the apps they need are present.

So if Apple takes care of the app issue well and their ARM processors are as good as they want them to be, what does that mean for everyone else? Well, to be honest, all we can say is the processor industry might be about to go through a huge shakeup, and the rest of the tech industry as a whole. Intel has been the big PC processor maker for almost 20 years now, but in the past 3 years they’ve been in quite a bad spot, missing processor advancement timelines, falling behind the competition ranging from AMD to Qualcomm , having a myriad of near-unsolvable security issues and seemingly failing Apple in their expected progression path for their machines too. After all the 2018 MacBook Pro was known for heating and thermal throttling issues, and it was clear that it was mainly because of the Intel processor in that machine that Apple had those problems. But while everyone has been talking about AMD overthrowing Intel, it might be Apple’s ARM processors and ARM processors in general that they have to worry about. If Apple actually does nail the sweet spot they’re trying to hit with Apple Silicon , we could see Microsoft doubling down efforts on Windows on ARM PCs in hopes of having something that at least almost matches what Apple is producing for consumers. It changes things up immensely for developers as well, after all as we’ve mentioned before, Apple’s iOS developer policies have started getting criticized for being too stringent, and in case anyone hasn’t noticed, if ARM Macs become a thing, all Apple developers will be iOS developers, as even the Mac will be based on iOS development too and the same policies will likely move to the Mac as well. Ironically Microsoft seems to have similar ideas too , as the upcoming Windows 10X, which is aimed to be the new, “everyday person” version of Windows 10 that most people should adopt will aim to lock down app usage and installation policies as well, moving all Windows development to web apps and Windows Store based apps while older programs will have to run in an emulator as well where, they’re obviously not as pleasing to use. Ironically enough while it seems to be aimed for current Intel and AMD PCs, Windows 10X almost seems perfect for ARM based Windows PCs, which makes one wonder if this is has always been a secret race between the two companies to move to ARM and consolidate their power over their desktop operating systems even more.
Simply put, based on what’s announced on Tuesday and the coming weeks after, the processor and PC world as we know it is about to be shaken up, and we just have to see how big the shakeup will be. And to be frank, I might seem to be actually fearful or pessimistic about Apple’s ARM processors, yet the fact is I’m actually excited about them. You see love them or hate them, Apple does tend to have a tendency to give everyone in the tech industry a shot in the arm when they need it(pun intended), coming up with something revolutionary that makes everyone else scramble to catch up. Just look at what the original iPhone or the MacBook Air did to the smartphone and laptop categories respectively. If Apple can doe something comparable for processors, we could be on the verge of another leap forward that we’re likely going to be smiling about a few years from now. Here’s to hoping it doesn’t take developer and consumer freedoms with it.

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