Why Apple's move to an ARM Mac is going to be a bumpy road for some

Posted:
in General Discussion edited June 2020
Apple can engineer Macs with ARM processors instead of Intel ones, but it can't make all developers move with it -- and there are some complications that will cause some problems.

One possibility is that the first ARM Mac will be a MacBook Air
One possibility is that the first ARM Mac will be a MacBook Air


If any company can radically change its entire product line by switching processors, then not only is it Apple now, it has always been Apple too. Unlike any other technology firm, Apple has twice abandoned its previous hardware to move over to new processors. It's also abandoned its previous software in much the same way as it moved from the classic OS 9 to Mac OS X and now macOS.

Each time, the move has gone so smoothly, and the results have been so successful, that you can imagine the process was simple. The move from the original Mac's Motorola processor to PowerPC, and then to Intel, was not in the slightest bit easy -- it was just done extremely well. And in private it was planned very far in advance, too.

Each time Apple makes these transitions, they need other companies to work alongside them -- and they need to explain to users what's happening.

We're not saying that a major move like this is difficult for the average Apple user to comprehend. But when it's not their job to follow these details, and they are not as interested as you or we, Apple has to reach them. If not, users who buy new machines find they don't work -- and it's Apple they will blame.

Apple's hurdles with an ARM Mac

This issue of a transition breaking familiar tools is likely to be more of a problem with an ARM Mac, because now Apple is moving away from a popular standard instead of toward one.

No transition is exactly simple, but when Apple moved from PowerPC to Intel, for instance, it had the immediate gain of Macs being readily able to run Windows with its new Boot Camp dual-boot facility.

When it moves from Intel to ARM, that natural processor-level ability is gone. According to AppleInsider data gleaned from our relationships with service departments, approximately 2% of Macs brought in for servicing at Apple have Windows installed on Boot Camp.






That's not a huge number, but it only needs to be one person for it to be very bad news if you are that one person. If Apple's Macs can't run Windows, the company will lose some customers.

It'll just be curious to see how many that is. Some will certainly abandon Apple, but others may well find that they hardly ever boot into Windows anyway and so just make some adjustments to their work.

Windows on Mac

This all supposes, too, that Boot Camp is going away, and that is not guaranteed. Apple will surely never want, or even be legally allowed to, port Windows onto ARM -- but Microsoft has already done it.

Then, too, there are Windows virtualization options, such as Parallels. These tend to be clunkier than the hardware Boot Camp, but then if you weren't prepared for clunkiness, you wouldn't be using Windows.

It's not known yet whether a version of Parallels will run on ARM. Equally, we can't know -- and we will probably never be told -- whether it's an easy job to take the Windows made for the Surface Pro X and run it on an ARM Mac.

What we can surmise is that, easy or not, it's a job that entails a lot of moving parts. In July 2019, users were prevented from updating Windows 10 on their Mac because one driver needed work.

However, we can also be reasonably sure that Microsoft will now see a business benefit in its support Apple -- when it didn't before.

Business and technical decisions

Despite Microsoft originally being a champion of the Mac and a supporter of Steve Jobs, the relationship has at times been ferociously bad.

Microsoft took its time bringing Word to the iPad.
Microsoft took its time bringing Word to the iPad.


Microsoft was once so totally focused on Windows that when asked if they would develop for Steve Jobs's NeXT computer, Bill Gates said no. Actually, he said "Develop for it? I'll p*** on it."

Then when the iPad came out, Microsoft famously ignored it. At the time, back in 2010, it wasn't unreasonable to bet that without Microsoft Office, the iPad would fail. Ultimately, though, users chose the iPad and when they couldn't get Office, they looked for alternatives. And then having found those alternatives on iPad, they started buying them on Windows and Macs.

In 2014, Microsoft caved and brought Office to the iPad. It's continued to develop new versions of its iOS apps, too, suggesting that it is seeing a value to backing Apple.

Today Adobe is doing the same with Photoshop for the iPad out now and Illustrator for it being announced.

True, Adobe owes much of its fortunes to Apple, and especially for how Adobe InDesign became the standard for publishing. That happened as much because its apparently insurmountable rival QuarkXPress bet against OS X and consequently decimated its Mac user base. At the time, Quark didn't care about those users, but when they lost the Mac community, they found they were vulnerable on the PC, too.

Yet Steve Jobs would later call out Adobe as being "the last major third party developer to fully adopt Mac OS X."

These major third party developers have to make both a business and a technical decision over whether to support Apple -- but at least they have enough resources to be able to choose. It's the smaller developers who may not, and it's those who will make an ARM transition difficult for some users.

Smaller plugin developers are crucial

We can know that it's the smaller developers who Apple really needs to get on board with ARM, because it's chiefly the smaller ones who failed in the crucial move to macOS Catalina.

Even though Apple privately warned developers for years, and publicly for at least one year, still developers were caught by Catalina's move to support only 64-bit apps.

Some companies that made Mac apps just abandoned the Mac because of this.

But it's not only apps that are affected, it's any software -- and that includes drivers. Hardware developers create software drivers to make their equipment work on the Mac, and if those drivers are not updated, the hardware won't work.

A Sonnet eGPU with the Sapphire 580 in Apple's own developers' kit
A Sonnet eGPU with the Sapphire 580 in Apple's own developers' kit


Consequently the move to macOS Catalina saw issues over certain eGPU setups.

Alongside full apps and small drivers, too, there are also plugins for Mac apps and hardware. Countless video and audio editors rely on these in apps such as Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro, and they have done so for years.

So while we can be certain that Final Cut Pro X will fly on ARM because it's developed by Apple, users of the video editing app may stall because a crucial plugin hasn't been updated.

Education is the answer, and macOS Catalina represents both good and bad news on that front. The bad news is that so many developers didn't or couldn't update their software to 64-bit for it. But the good news is that every one of them then heard loudly from their users.

Developers who have now left the Mac are unlikely to return unless ARM sales are incredible, but those who remain will surely be more aware of what work they need to do.

Education and time

Steve Jobs handled the last major transition, the move to Intel, and what he said about it publicly was quite the masterclass in explaining what was happening, why, and when. The perception now is that he also did so in plenty of time, but that's not entirely true.

Apple announced the move to Intel in June 2005, and provided a Developer Transition Kit to help. Then the first publicly-available Intel Macs shipped in January 2006.






If recent rumors of Apple accelerating its ARM Mac development are true, we will see the first one announced by the end of 2020. Were Apple to reveal the move at WWDC in June 2020, that would represent just about the same amount of notice.

The Apple of 2020 is gigantic compared to the Apple of 2006. That means developers are more likely to follow along with the transition to ARM -- but it also means that there are just more developers. Their software is more crucial, too. Apple surely cannot allow Apple Arcade, for example, to shrink because not all games developers played nice.

We're also more conscious now of the sheer scale of a transition, and the number of hurdles Apple has to get over. There do seem to be greater issues than before, but most signs are that Apple is going to be ready. This transition stands a decent chance of being as smooth as Apple's previous ones.

It's just that what's smooth for most of us does not mean there won't be some bumps the road for, as Apple would say, the rest of us.

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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 162
    If I were Apple, I would make a x86 instructions compatible processor with ARM core.  Modern Intel processors used the same technique with RISC-like core and x86 microcode.  This way, no transition issues, if not 100% compatible with existing software.
    edited March 2020 caladanianwatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 162
    horvatichorvatic Posts: 144member
    Unless they can keep all the features that are currently in place including Bootcamp it would be the worst mistake Apple could do.
    caladanianmattinozjbdragondarkvaderralphiedysamoria
  • Reply 3 of 162
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 6,681administrator
    horvatic said:
    Unless they can keep all the features that are currently in place including Bootcamp it would be the worst mistake Apple could do.
    I don't think so. Once upon a time, the Mac gave the halo to the iPhone. It hasn't been that way in 10 years, and is instead the other way around. The new Mac user doesn't care. Boot Camp installs are a very small percentage of the overall user base, as the article discusses.

    We'll all see together.
    edited March 2020 mwhitetmayradarthekatsuperklotonwatto_cobrajony0osmartormenajr
  • Reply 4 of 162
    SoliSoli Posts: 10,035member
    If I were Apple, I would make a x86 instructions compatible processor with ARM core.  Modern Intel processors used the same technique with RISC-like core and x86 microcode.
    I both hope and expect that they won't include any x86 compatibility. There are only a very small portion of Mac users that are dual booting so I don't want the cost and complexity to be added to an SoC that very few will ever benefit from. If you need this on your Mac then you can use an Intel Mac for that and by the time you have to get a new Mac -and- when there is evenutally no option for an Intel Mac I doubt it will still be a problem.

    As I recall, Apple didn't commit to dual-booting Intel Macs at the offset. It was only after that talented people figured out how to add it that Apple eventually add it. I think someone set up a prize for cracking the dual boot problem after the Intel Macs launched.
    edited March 2020 superklotonwatto_cobrajony0GG1osmartormenajr
  • Reply 5 of 162
    bsimpsenbsimpsen Posts: 391member
    If I were Apple, I would make a x86 instructions compatible processor with ARM core.  Modern Intel processors used the same technique with RISC-like core and x86 microcode.  This way, no transition issues, if not 100% compatible with existing software.
    Apple does not have a license to use the x86 instruction set. They'd need one to do as you suggest.
    Rayz2016tmayradarthekatsuperklotonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 162
    WgkruegerWgkrueger Posts: 352member
    horvatic said:
    Unless they can keep all the features that are currently in place including Bootcamp it would be the worst mistake Apple could do.
    Because advancing technology is a bad thing. 
    mike1superklotonwatto_cobrajony0FileMakerFellerhorvaticosmartormenajr
  • Reply 7 of 162
    bloggerblogbloggerblog Posts: 2,426member
    I for one am really excited, ARM is a great choice!
    mwhitehodarrezwitssuperklotonwatto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 8 of 162

    Wgkrueger said:
    horvatic said:
    Unless they can keep all the features that are currently in place including Bootcamp it would be the worst mistake Apple could do.
    Because advancing technology is a bad thing. 
    It is when you are asking for an abundance of new problems, totally unnecessarily. 
    horvaticprismaticsdysamoria
  • Reply 9 of 162
    With the full migration to 64-bit, now is the perfect time for Apple to transition to ARM based Macs. Like previous architecture changes, we all know Apple has been running dual code bases for sometime.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 162
    wood1208wood1208 Posts: 2,870member
    Good thing about ARM MAC is Apple can control it's destiny with regular MAC releases.
    minicoffeeradarthekatsuperklotonwatto_cobrajony0GG1
  • Reply 11 of 162
    seanismorrisseanismorris Posts: 1,624member
    Don’t expect the entire line of Apple products to switch to ARM at the same time.

    MacBook Air (ARM)
    MacBook (ARM + discrete graphics)
    MacBook Pro (Intel for Boot Camp users & compatibility)

    The rest of the Macs (& iMacs) are a bit of a mess.  The Mac Pro is obviously going to stay Intel for a long time.  But what about the iMac and iMac Pro?  If the same naming conventions apply, the iMac Pro would be Intel.  What about the Mac mini? Does it get the ARM chip + discrete graphics?  I would think it needs Boot Camp...
    edited March 2020 Hank2.0
  • Reply 12 of 162
    I'd still say they are going to be moving to custom-designed AMD chipsets instead.  Probably based around the Zen 2 architecture.  It'll retain x86 compatibility and provide better performance for the power.  The move to an all ARM platform seems a little too early.  Yes, they could if they wanted to, but I still think there needs to be considerable work done before Windows on ARM becomes a proper, mass-embraced thing (for those that need Windows compatibility, of course - as a sysadmin working across all the platforms, the current Mac lineup is great because I can manage/develop and test across all platforms from the Mac using virtualisation or Boot Camp.  We may be a small percentage, but how does that compare with the Pros who have waited so long for the current Mac Pro?).
    edited March 2020
  • Reply 13 of 162
    SoliSoli Posts: 10,035member
    Don’t expect the entire line of Apple products to switch to ARM at the same time.

    MacBook Air (ARM)
    MacBook (ARM + discrete graphics)
    MacBook Pro (Intel for Boot Camp users & compatibility)

    The rest of the Macs (& iMacs) are a bit of a mess.  The Mac Pro is obviously going to stay Intel for a long time.  But what about the iMac and iMac Pro?  If the same naming conventions apply, the iMac Pro would be Intel.  What about the Mac mini? Does it get the ARM chip + discrete graphics?  I would think it needs Boot Camp…
    1) I mostly agree with your lineup except that I lean toward the MB going to ARM first, not the MBA.

    2) While I think it'll be a ways off, an iMac (ARM) and iMac Pro (Intel) may lead to a Mac mini (ARM) and Mac mini Pro (Intel). I think that depends on how many Mac minis they sell that are being used as servers running older apps that won't be converted quickly, along with how many are running virtualized OSes, and how much of a push they want to put toward a lower-priced ARM Mac mini to push additional Mac desktop sales. For me there are too many unknowns in sales to get a glimpse of what Apple may do in this area.
  • Reply 14 of 162
    SoliSoli Posts: 10,035member
    mbdrake76 said:
    I'd still say they are going to be moving to custom-designed AMD chipsets instead.  Probably based around the Zen 2 architecture.  It'll retain x86 compatibility and provide better performance for the power.  The move to an all ARM platform seems a little too early.  Yes, they could if they wanted to, but I still think there needs to be considerable work done before Windows on ARM becomes a proper, mass-embraced thing.
    Apple makes macOS. Microsoft makes Windows.
    eightzeroGG1
  • Reply 15 of 162
    seanismorrisseanismorris Posts: 1,624member
    mbdrake76 said:
    I'd still say they are going to be moving to custom-designed AMD chipsets instead.  Probably based around the Zen 2 architecture.  It'll retain x86 compatibility and provide better performance for the power.  The move to an all ARM platform seems a little too early.  Yes, they could if they wanted to, but I still think there needs to be considerable work done before Windows on ARM becomes a proper, mass-embraced thing.
    A Mac running ARM Windows makes no sense (I think we agree on that).  I don’t think Apple will go AMD besides using their discrete graphics ...until they develop their own.  I remember reading Intel gives Apple amazing prices for their chips.  It’s possible AMD could match it, but Intel and Apple collaborate elsewhere.  Eventually Apple will do everything in-house, but until then switching to AMD seems like a needless complication.
    radarthekatMacPro
  • Reply 16 of 162
    ElCapitanElCapitan Posts: 372member
    There is large number of open-source libraries in use, and both closed source and open source applications built on these running on macOS where it is highly unlikely they will ever be ported to ARM. Many of these run on the current macOS by a shoe-string only by feature of running on Intel, as the port is relative untrivial compared to a port to ARM.
    cgWerksprismaticsdysamoria
  • Reply 17 of 162
    bsimpsenbsimpsen Posts: 391member
    horvatic said:
    Unless they can keep all the features that are currently in place including Bootcamp it would be the worst mistake Apple could do.
    Let me rephrase this for you...

    Unless Apple can keep that 2% of Bootcamp users, attracting 10% more people to the Mac would be the worst mistake Apple could do.

    In articles here and elsewhere in recent years, I've read that the cost of an Intel CPU in an entry level MacBook Pro is in the vicinity of $200, or as much as 20% of the cost to build the machine. The cost of the A family CPU in an iPad Pro is about $50, and outperforms the Intel part. I imagine Apple will pocket some of the $150 savings and pass the rest to the customer, along with the performance improvement (particularly battery life). Even if the price and performance gaps are smaller than rumored, they're still going to be significant.

    If you think that improvement in the price/performance ratio for Macs won't attract more people to the platform than Apple stands to lose (2%max), I'd like you to explain why.
    spheric
  • Reply 18 of 162
    seanismorrisseanismorris Posts: 1,624member
    Soli said:
    Don’t expect the entire line of Apple products to switch to ARM at the same time.

    MacBook Air (ARM)
    MacBook (ARM + discrete graphics)
    MacBook Pro (Intel for Boot Camp users & compatibility)

    The rest of the Macs (& iMacs) are a bit of a mess.  The Mac Pro is obviously going to stay Intel for a long time.  But what about the iMac and iMac Pro?  If the same naming conventions apply, the iMac Pro would be Intel.  What about the Mac mini? Does it get the ARM chip + discrete graphics?  I would think it needs Boot Camp…
    1) I mostly agree with your lineup except that I lean toward the MB going to ARM first, not the MBA.

    2) While I think it'll be a ways off, an iMac (ARM) and iMac Pro (Intel) may lead to a Mac mini (ARM) and Mac mini Pro (Intel). I think that depends on how many Mac minis they sell that are being used as servers running older apps that won't be converted quickly, along with how many are running virtualized OSes, and how much of a push they want to put toward a lower-priced ARM Mac mini to push additional Mac desktop sales. For me there are too many unknowns in sales to get a glimpse of what Apple may do in this area.
    The MacBook Air would be a perfect fit for ARM... no active cooling, slim form factor, long battery life.  Most people would be perfectly happy running almost Apple software exclusively + Apps from the App Store.  All the games, etc. should run without a problem.  Students (etc) that need Office could use the web versions.  If they sold the Air through ISPs and included 5G it would be the perfect machine for 90% of the population. I’d replace my iPad with it...
    radarthekatMacPro
  • Reply 19 of 162
    GG1GG1 Posts: 483member
    I don't follow the line "it moved from the classic OS 9 to Mac OS X and now macOS".

    I thought both Mac OS X and macOS were Berkeley Unix-based. Unless macOS is the 64-bit version of Mac OS X.

    cgWerksdysamoria
  • Reply 20 of 162
    larryjwlarryjw Posts: 1,022member
    We're not talking about Mac software moving to ARM, we're talking about iOS/iPad/iPhone software moving to the Mac/ARM. 

    I can't say it's going to be a breeze, but reasonably doable with Apple support. The big and little players are already on iOS. Those will now have to drive the software with the touch pad and mouse. With Macs able to use iPads as alternative entry devices and display the flexibility is already here. 

    So, in addition to the iPadOS, WatchOS, TVOS, Apple would release ArmOS for the new Macs. 

    You all are talking about a brain transplant. I'm talking about a body transplant. 
    edited March 2020 retrogusto
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