With the dust settling on Apple’s first arm-based Macs and new M1 chip announcements, it’s time to consider what this means for one of the industry’s largest computing ecosystems. The switch to Arm CPUs is a big change that will be felt across the industry in the coming years. The energy efficiency benefits for consumers are obviously great, but the change is likely to be a headache for software developers who need to go back and rebuild their apps.
While Apple seems to have produced some very powerful silicon based on initial reviews and tests of the technology field, the need for simulation means that we should take its performance assertions with a pinch of salt. After all, software simulation takes a toll on performance and power consumption. We’ll be putting the chip and one of Apple’s new laptops through their steps very soon to find out for sure.
However, what we can say is that this transformation is already proving to be an excuse for more ecosystem management.
Read more: What’s the difference between Arm and x86 CPUs?
Increased reliance on the App Store
Changing the CPU architecture that powers your app ecosystem is no small feat. To assist developers with the change, Apple launched a new Xcode 12 developer toolkit. To quote Apple, Xcode produces one binary “slice” for Apple Silicon and one for Intel. It then wraps them together as a single app bundle to share or present to the Mac App Store.
That’s pretty handy, because it means you can just hit install in the store without having to worry about downloading the right version. However, it’s clear that developers are announcing their resubmitted apps to the Apple store. Especially for older apps that may not have considered using shops many years ago. Microsoft has a similar solution using Visual Studio to produce Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps for the Microsoft Store.
Everyone likes a good app store for simplicity. However, developers must adhere to more rules if they choose to publish on shopfronts. Disagreements over T & Cs led to the lawsuit between Apple and Epic games earlier in 2020. Let’s not forget that Apple also takes 30% of all sales on mobile and Mac store fronts. The launch of Microsoft Office on the Mac App Store has been delayed while both companies have figured out app bundling and subscription issues. Historically, Apple’s tight control over its store ecosystems works against the interests of developers and app users.
Apple takes 30% of mobile and Mac app store sales.
That said, Arm versions of Adobe Photoshop and Blizzard’s World of Warcraft continue to be installed through their respective launchers. Certainly, big companies can exist outside the store. Apple is not forcing developers to break with self-hosted app settings. At least not yet. However, attracting store exposure can hinder smaller developers to play by Apple’s rules.
Additionally, Apple is looking to increase cross-compatibility between its MacOS and the much more closed iOS ecosystems. Arm-based iOS applications already run natively on M1 powered Macs. Apps for the future are probably apps running seamlessly on both platforms. However, there is no .dmg or .pkg for iOS, only the App Store, and Apple is not jailbreaking friendly. Cross-platform devs targeting iOS and Mac OS will have no choice but to sign Apple’s T & Cs and pay the 30% tax.
Goodbye Boat Camp and Hackintosh
Apple’s latest hardware announcement also has implications for two specialized use cases of its laptop platform – Boat Camp and Hackintosh. Both are unlikely to continue working as Apple transfers away from x86.
Apple has confirmed that Boot Camp support is not coming to Macs Arm. Microsoft only licenses Arm makers to the Arm version of Windows 10. So running native Windows Arm on Apple hardware is low. Instead, those looking to work with both operating systems on one device will be limited to virtualization. However, it seems that popular virtualization software will not work with Apple’s Rosetta 2 simulation, so it will have to be completely rebuilt.
Apple has confirmed that Boot Camp support is not coming to Macs Arm.
The conversion has similar implications for users looking to run Mac OS on hardware other than Apple hardware. Mac OS continues to support x86 for the time being, so Hackintosh builders are safe in the medium term. But the far picture only points to Arm’s support before the turn of the decade. Getting compatible hardware is expected to become much more difficult if / when Apple gradually removes Intel support. Of course, we may have many more arm-based PC platforms by then. However, off-the-shelf support will depend on how deep the company ultimately integrates critical Mac OS functionality with its dedicated hardware.
Certainly no arm move was designed to kill Boot Camp and Hackintosh. Only a side effect also happens to further limit consumer options for interacting with Apple’s ecosystem.
Breaking links with Intel involves killing apps
Apple’s desire to end its reliance on Intel is no secret. Rumors suggest that the company has not been happy with Intel’s chip progress for years, and Apple is covering the cost. It makes economic sense for Cupertino to leverage its mobile silicon team for laptops. But moving away from x86 depends on emulating old applications built for that architecture. Rosetta is Apple’s solution 2. However, it is highly unlikely that the company intends to keep simulation around very long. Instead, it is a tool to ease the transition away from Intel and into its own silicon.
Some kind of deadline, even a non-official one, encourages developers to build native Arm apps instead of relying on emulation for years. However, older applications at the end of help maps may never be resubmitted. Similarly, Rosetta also can’t interpret many Intel CPU extensions, which means that some high-performance apps may not even work on Arm Macs.
Using internal processors, rather than Intel, will boost Apple’s bottom line.
Either way, the clock ticks for x86 applications on Mac OS. Apple has a form for killing simulators in just a few years. The original Rosetta, released with OS X Tiger for PowerPC emulation during the switch to Intel, was discontinued by OS X Lion. Apple considered the transformation complete after only three generations of OS, though the emulation support ended over six years.
At some point in the near future, old x86 applications will cease running on Macs as well. This will be a headache for developers in the medium term. And yet, Apple stands to gain with a firmer grasp of hardware and software, as well as a healthier bottom line of in-house chip sales.
Are there any benefits to platform management?
Apple discontinued PowerPC in 2006 due to a combination of lower clock speed, sluggish innovation, and the cost of IBM processors. Today, similar pricing and innovation issues have taken their head with Intel. While for consumers, the better per-watt performance of moving to Arm is the key benefit.
However, that marginal improvement hardly seems worth quoting the entire Mac OS developer and user software ecosystem. Intel Macbooks have decent battery life and great performance after all. It is also strange that the company did not seem to be considering AMD’s increasingly powerful chip portfolio.
The move to a silicone arm is as much about platform management as it is about driving innovation.
What Cupertino really wants is more control. First over the roadmap of developing and working its silicon. With in-house processors, Apple can drive integrated imaging, machine learning, and security features in the direction it wants. Deeper hardware and software integration seems inevitable. At the same time, a change to the Arm architecture gives Apple more leverage in the software space. Tighter integration with its security APIs, app checking, biometrics, credit cards and payment information are all possible with silicon APIs and new software. As a result, developers are not so drawn to their app store to ensure product compatibility and use cross-platform support with iOS.
We are still some years away from the complete transition to Arm. However, Apple’s final game is a unified, tightly controlled hardware and software ecosystem across wearable, mobile and PC. We must see if this is in the best interests of consumers.
Up next: Does Google have a solution for Apple’s all-in-one ecosystem?