How will Apple tempt developers to ARM-based Macs?

Will developers want to use Apple's soon to be upgraded ARM-based Mac platform.

Apple, WWDC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, iOS, macOS, ARM
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Apple is expected to announce a migration from Intel to its own ARM-based processors inside Macs at WWDC, how might it motivate developers to join it on this ride?

Better is not better than best

Have Macs already become better than they ever need to become? What challenges do they uniquely solve? What will we need them to do tomorrow?

To what extent are SaaS, PaaS, cloud-based deployment, network and artificial intelligence, server-based application access and other rapidly proliferating computing models superseding the traditional reasons to get a PC (or Mac)?

How many of the tasks we once used a PC to do can now be handled by mobile devices, and of those that remain, how many can now be accessed or run using computing solutions in the cloud – themselves handled by mobile devices?

Enterprise IT increasingly prioritiizes investment in SaaS, with Synergy Research reporting $100 billion SaaS revenues in 2019.

That’s 100 billion signposts to signal the direction of PC market travel, a direction that happens to echo the vision Steve Jobs and Bud Tribble shared at NeXT, one of connected computing and the cloud.

Of course, this vision is decades old, but now it’s here, as SaaS revenue, mobile device usage and even Zoom meetings show. That’s the future the Mac must meet.

The question is wheher it can meet that future with Intel? Apple doesn’t seem to think so.

But developers have to agree

Apple’s challenge at WWDC will be to make this argument to developers. Not only will it need to win that discussion, but it must also empower developers with the tools they need today to prepare for tomorrow.

That means new APIs, new tools to help transition existing Mac code to the new processor architecture, and – realistically – some form of emulation to enable unmodified Mac apps to run on the new chips.

The company offered all of these tools when it migrated from PowerPC to Intel, so it seems realistic to expect it will do so this time around.

Developers will also need hardware. How will Apple respond?

John Gruber notes one possibility. He recalls that during the PowerPC-Intel transition Apple offered developers $1,000 Developer Transition Kits consisting of Intel-based hardware on which they could build and test their applications. The hardware was eventually returned to Apple, with developers then receiving a discount on new Intel-based Macs. Will Apple repeat this approach?

There is a second possibility: It was recently speculated Apple intends to introduce  Xcode for iPads. If it did, would it then become possible to work on Mac code on an iPad? Who else can imagine Apple’s Craig Federighi telling developers:

“We wanted to put machines based on the new chip into your hands so you can begin to recompile your fantastic Mac apps for the new architecture. Then we realized you already have those machines in the form of iPads...”

There’s some potential in the second approach. Developers can experience how the app performs on a bigger display as the iPad already supports the Pro Display XDR. Add cursor support and Magic Keyboard to the mix and all that's lacking is:

  • RAM
  • macOS on iPad

Of the two approaches, provision of Developer Transition Kits seems like the least problematic strategy, though iPads could act as an introductory platform. (Sorry to hedge my bets; I see merits in both approaches at least in terms of initial testing of any new development tools.)

Why will developers make the move?

Apple will need to sell the idea. Developers will need to be convinced that there are financial and experience benefits that will profit them from supporting any such transition.

This is particularly true for enterprise developers who may be managing tight development budgets for their in-house software infrastructure.

Apple also needs developers to support this transition if it wants to stand any chance of inspiring Mac users to join it on the journey. It needs the applications to roll out fast.

So, what advantages are there for developers?

  • Apple will point to the low power requirements of these chips, the fact that it will be able to sell Macs at slightly lower prices, and built-in on-chip machine learning support (Core ML).
  • Apple will point to the impressive performance its chips already deliver. The A12Z chip used inside iPad Pro exceeds the performance of most Windows laptops.
  • It will point to its chip development road map, which should reach 3-nanometers within a couple of years.
  • It will explain how multicore A-series chips will benefit application performance. It will talk about clock speeds.
  • Will it promise 24-hour battery life for mobile Macs?
  • And what will be inside its next iMac?

We’ll all be watching WWDC later this month for some answers.

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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