As dust settles on Apple’s first Arm-based Macs and new announcements of M1 chips, it’s time to take stock of what this means for one of the largest computing ecosystems in the industry. The transition to Arm CPU is a big change that will be felt throughout the industry in the coming years. The benefits of energy efficiency for consumers are obviously great, but the change is likely to be a headache for software developers who need to go back and restore their applications.
Although it seems that Apple has produced very powerful silicon based on initial reviews and tests in the technical field, the need for emulation means that we must accept its claims to performance with little salt. After all, software emulation affects both performance and power consumption. We will soon release the chip and one of Apple’s new laptops to find out for sure.
What we can say, however, is that this transition is already proving to be a pretext for greater control of ecosystems.
Read more: What is the difference between Arm and x86 CPU?
Growing dependence on the App Store
Switching to the processor architecture that drives your application ecosystem is no small feat. To help developers change, Apple has released a new set of tools for Xcode 12 developers. To quote Apple, Xcode produces one binary “piece” for Apple Silicon and one for Intel. It then wraps them together as a bundle of apps to share or send to the Mac App Store.
This is quite convenient, as it means that you can simply click “Install” in the store without worrying about downloading the correct version. However, there is a clear impetus for developers to publish their recompiled applications in the Apple store. Especially for older apps that may not have considered locating the store a few years ago. Microsoft has a similar solution that uses Visual Studio to build Universal Windows Platform (UWP) applications for the Microsoft Store.
Everyone likes a good app store for simplicity. However, developers must follow more rules if they decide to publish in shop windows. Disagreements over T&C led to a lawsuit between Apple and Epic games earlier in 2020. Let’s not forget that Apple also takes 30% of all sales on both mobile and Mac storefronts. The launch of Microsoft Office in the Mac App Store was postponed until the two companies realized the problems with application packaging and subscription. Historically, Apple’s tight control over its in-store ecosystems has worked against the interests of app developers and consumers.
Apple accounts for 30% of sales of mobile devices and app stores for the Mac.
However, Blizzard’s versions of Adobe Photoshop and World of Warcraft are still installed through their respective launchers. Big companies can certainly exist outside the store. Apple does not force developers to stop installing self-hosted applications. At least not yet. However, the lure of in-store exposure may tempt smaller developers to play by Apple’s rules.
In addition, Apple is seeking to increase cross-compatibility between its MacOS and far more closed iOS ecosystems. Arm-based iOS apps now run on M1-powered Macs. The future goal is certainly applications that run smoothly on both platforms. For iOS, however, there is no .dmg or .pkg, and only the App Store and Apple are not jailbreak friendly. Developers on various platforms targeting iOS and Mac OS will have no choice but to sign Apple’s T&C and pay a 30% tax.
Goodbye Boot Camp and Hackintosh
Apple’s latest hardware announcement also has implications for two uses of its laptop platform – Boot Camp and Hackintosh. Both are unlikely to continue to work as Apple switches from x86.
Apple has confirmed that Boot Camp support does not come for Arm-based Macs. Microsoft licenses the Arm version of Windows 10 only to computer manufacturers. Therefore, there is little prospect of running your own Windows Arm on Apple hardware. Instead, those who want to run both operating systems on one device will be limited to virtualization. However, it seems that the popular virtualization software will not work with the emulation of Apple Rosetta 2, so it will have to be completely restored.
Apple has confirmed that Boot Camp support does not come for Arm-based Macs.
The transition has similar consequences for users who want to run Mac OS on hardware other than Apple. Mac OS continues to support x86 for now, so Hackintosh builders are safe in the medium term. But the distant picture points to support only for weapons before the start of the decade. Providing compatible hardware will become much more difficult if / when Apple phases out support for Intel. Of course, until then we can have many more Arm-based computer platforms. However, the support of some of the finished parts will depend on how deeply the company integrates the critical functionality of Mac OS with its custom hardware.
Moving to Arm is certainly not meant to kill Boot Camp and Hackintosh. This is simply a side effect, which also further limits the user’s ability to interact with Apple’s ecosystem.
Disconnecting from Intel means killing applications
Apple’s desire to end its dependence on Intel is no secret. Rumor has it that the company has not been happy with the progress of the Intel chip for years, and Apple is covering the costs. It is economically logical for the Cupertino-based company to use its mobile silicon team for laptops. But moving away from x86 relies on emulating old applications created for this architecture. Apple’s solution is Rosetta 2. However, it is unlikely that the company intends to maintain emulation for very long. Rather, it is a tool to ease the transition from Intel to its own silicon.
A deadline, even an unofficial one, encourages developers to actually compile their own Arm applications instead of relying on emulation for years. However, older applications at the end of maintenance roadmaps may never be recompiled. Similarly, Rosetta cannot interpret a number of Intel processor extensions, which means that some high-performance applications may not even work on Arm Macs.
Using internal processors, not Intel, will increase Apple’s bottom.
Anyway, the clock is ticking for x86 applications on Mac OS. Apple has a form of killing emulators in just a few years. The original Rosetta, released with OS X Tiger for PowerPC emulation during the transition to Intel, was discontinued by OS X Lion. Apple thought the transition was complete after only three generations of OS, although emulation support eventually spanned six years.
At some point in the not too distant future, the old x86 applications will stop working on Macs as well. This will be a headache for developers in the medium term. However, Apple will benefit from a tighter grip on hardware and software, as well as a healthier result from domestic chip sales.
Are there any benefits to controlling the platform?
Apple dropped PowerPC in 2006 due to a combination of lower clock speeds, sluggish innovations and the cost of IBM processors. Today, similar pricing and innovation issues have risen in Intel’s head. Although for consumers, improved watt performance from switching to Arm is the key advantage.
However, this minor improvement is hardly worth upsetting the entire Mac OS developer and user software ecosystem. Intel Macbooks have decent battery life and still great performance. It’s also weird that the company doesn’t seem to have taken into account AMD’s growing chip portfolio.
The move to Arm silicon applies both to platform management and to stimulating innovation.
What Cupertino really wants is more control. First over the development roadmap and the internal workings of its silicon. With internal 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, the move to Arm architecture gives Apple more leverage in the software space. Closer integration with its security APIs, application verification, biometrics, credit cards and payment information are possible with the new Silicon APIs and software. As a result, developers do not rush so carefully in its application store to ensure product compatibility and use support for different platforms with iOS.
We still have a few years left from the full transition to Arm. However, Apple’s ultimate game is a tightly controlled, unified hardware and software ecosystem for wearables, mobile devices and computers. Whether this is in the best interest of consumers remains to be seen.
Follows: Does Google have an answer for Apple’s entire ecosystem?