WWDC 2020: Yes, Apple is dumping Intel, gently

Apple will ship its first Macs running its own Apple-developed ARM-based processors this year as it begins a two-year transition from Intel.

Apple, Mac, WWDC, macOS, OS X, Mac OS, Big Sur, Intel, ARM, Macs

The rumor that refused to die, namely the Mac’s transition to Apple’s own ARM-based processors, will take two years – though Macs running Intel processors will be supported “for years," the company promised today at its Worldwide Developers Conference.

But the outwardly amicable "no fault" divorce with current Macintosh silicon supplier  Intel is now officially under way.

Apple confirms Mac transition to Apple silicon

Apple’s chip development teams have been delivering industry-beating improvements in performance, power management, speed – they’ve essentially moved right to the front of the business in their achievements.

So it’s no great surprise Apple now wants to move to its own ARM-based, all-Apple chips. The company thinks doing so will give the Mac industry-leading performance per watt and higher performance GPUs — enabling app developers to write even more powerful apps and games, while integrated on-chip machine learning opens fresh opportunities for innovation.

The move inevitably reflects Apple’s “whole widget” approach. That means a common architecture across all of the company's products, making it “far easier for developers to write and optimize software for the entire Apple ecosystem,” the company said.

What Cook said

“From the beginning, the Mac has always embraced big changes to stay at the forefront of personal computing. Today we’re announcing our transition to Apple silicon, making this a historic day for the Mac,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “With its powerful features and industry-leading performance, Apple silicon will make the Mac stronger and more capable than ever. I’ve never been more excited about the future of the Mac.”

What Johny Srouji said

To put this into context, here are some of the claims made by the company’s senior vice president for hardware technologies, Johny Srouji, during the WWDC 2020 online keynote as he argued that the move isn’t just about the whole widget, but also about harnessing the best chips in the business:

  • Apple has already delivered 10 generations of chips.
  • The company has already shipped over 2 billion units of its own processors.
  • Since the first Apple chip, iPhone performance has improved by a factor of 100
  • The latest iPad delivers 1,000 times the graphics performance of the first-generation.
  • “This foreshadows how well our architecture will scale to the Mac,” Srouji said.

The basic promises advances in a variety of ways. Think MacBooks with 24-hour battery life or computers that already know you need to colorize a particular element of your video in a compositing application.

Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro are already running on Macs using these new processors, and the company boasted that the entire macOS demo was presented on a development platform running these chips.

What are the analysts saying?

CCS Insights secured the first-past-the-post analyst comment; as Geoff Blaber, vice president for research, Americas, said:

"Apple has made enormous investments in Arm chip design and it's logical that it extends that capability beyond the iPhone and iPad. Its motivations for doing so include reducing its dependence on Intel, maximising its silicon investment, boosting performance, and giving itself more flexibility and agility when it comes to future products.

"Microsoft's experience with Windows is the blueprint for the potential and the pitfalls of introducing Arm chips to PCs. The advantages of cost, flexibility and power consumption are clear. But the practical reality of recompiling apps as a steppingstone will take time. Apple can make Final Cut Pro and iWork run seamlessly, but guaranteeing that a myriad of plug-ins behave is another matter.

 "Despite the challenges, embracing ARM and making hardware more consistent across the iPhone, iPad and Mac ranges is a strategic necessity. Microsoft tried to force a similar move prematurely with Windows RT, although its tight collaboration with Qualcomm is now bearing fruit. Apple's vertical integration should make this an easier undertaking despite inevitable bumps along the road."

Big Sur is Apple native

That last point isn’t just moot. It means Big Sur will run natively on Apple silicon – and that means Macs running these new chips will be available soon. I speculate on a Q4 reveal, possibly at the same time as the perhaps-delayed iPhone 12.

During the WWDC keynote, Apple revealed that it has already built a new Universal engine that lets developers build apps that work on any device running an Apple chip. Microsoft Office already works well on the new platform, Apple claimed, as does Adobe Creative Cloud, including Lightroom and Photoshop.

What are the advantages for developers?

Developers will be able to more easily deploy some of the world’s most sophisticated mobile technologies on a PC. They will also be able to create and sell applications that work across Apple’s entire platform, scaling up and down as required. That means the chance to build:

  • Faster high-performance applications.
  • Immersive gaming experiences.
  • Augmenting application experiences with machine learning.
  • Universal app provision.
  • The ability to offer software that works on both Intel and Apple-based Macs.
  • Presumably, a good platform from which to port iPhone and other apps.
  • A chance to access multiple platforms in one build.

Developers will also soon recognize that with Apple’s entire user base now interested to find out what these new ARM-based Macs can do, the company has delivered an opporunity for those developers to exploit that heightened curiosity.

What are the advantages to users?

We’re getting a sense of what Apple is promising:

  • Faster Macs that deliver better performance.
  • Much improved battery life.
  • New-to-platform machine learning support.
  • Universal apps that run happily across all your Apple systems.
  • An enormous increase in the number of available apps – all those iPhone and iPad apps, for example.

What about apps that don’t work on the new chips?

Many of Apple’s customers, particularly those using more obscure industry-specific plug-ins and other high-end tools, will be stressed out wondering whether their developers will join the company for its ride.

Apple wants to make the transition seamless.

That means making it easier to run apps that don’t work on the new processors yet. To achieve this, macOS Big Sur will include Rosetta 2, a kind of emulation layer that lets non-modified apps run on the new chips.

This is Apple’s typical strategy; it did the same thing before, particularly when it moved to Intel chips in 2005.

Apple has also built a virtualization tool, so you can run other operating systems (including Linux) on these new Macs. I think that last enhancement will turn out to be a highly significant and deeply useful improvement for many Mac users.

What happens next?

Apple is making the next version of macOS, which supports these new processors, available to developers at WWDC this week. It will make the OS available to the public in the Public Beta scheme come July.

Xcode 12 has the skills

Xcode 12 will provide everything developers need to create applications for these new Macs, including things like native compilers, editors and debugging tools. Apple promises (and I hope it's true) that most developers will be able to get their apps running in a matter of days.

Perhaps most importantly, developers can also make their iOS and iPadOS apps available on the Mac without any modifications.

The Developer Transition Kit

It’s all very well that Big Sur will support this, but how can developers test the new chips if they don’t have an ARM-powered Mac to test it on? To help, Apple is introducing a program to help developers get started.

This includes new Developer Transition Kit hardware – a Mac mini running an A12Z chip with 16GB memory and a 512 SSD. It must be returned to Apple at the end of the program.

The program also provides access to documentation, forums support, and beta versions of macOS Big Sur and Xcode 12. Developers can apply to the program at developer.apple.com; the total cost of the program is $500.

It is interesting that one of the conditions for access to these kits is that developers will not: “discuss, publicly write about, or post any reactions to or about the Developer Transition Kit (or Your use of the Developer Transition Kit), whether online, in print, in person, or on social media, unless separately authorized in writing by Apple.”

Though, given the thriving industry in Apple snark and criticism, you can kind of understand why the company feels that way.

What about Intel Macs?

The current crop of Intel-based Macs aren't going away any time soon, the company suggested. Apple will continue to sell Intel-based Macs as it makes this transition across the next two years. Intel Macs will be supported by macOS "for years to come," Apple promised. 

First Apple-chip based Mac by the end of the year?

The first Apple Apple Mac (see what I did there?) using the company’s own silicon is expected to ship by the end of the year. 

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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