Apple-designed ARM-based Macs are coming, but why?

For years, rumors have swirled that Apple would dump sloth-like Intel and transition to ARM-based Macs powered with Apple-designed processors. Now, just this week, Apple supply-chain uber-analyst Ming-Chi Kuo writes that that Apple plans to release a Mac with an Apple-designed processor in the first half of next year.

ARM-based Mac. Image: MacBook Air

Jason Snell for Macworld:

If you look closely, you can see lots of signs of the direction Apple has been going with the Mac. The arrival of macOS Catalina swept away all the old 32-bit code that had been sticking around the Mac since the earliest days. Pulling all the oldest code out of macOS will undoubtedly make it run more readily on 64-bit ARM processors.

Catalina also introduced Mac Catalyst, a way for iPad apps to be modified to run on the Mac. Thus far Catalyst hasn’t made too much of an impact, but in a world where the Mac runs on ARM processors, it’s not too hard to see where this is all going: Developers will be able to create a single application that runs across all of Apple’s platforms, adapting to phone or tablet or laptop…

I’ll wager that the first ARM Macs to arrive will offer more processing power than the devices they’re replacing, so any emulation that’s required will be relatively painless… Moving away from Intel means a loss for people who also need to run Windows, but I don’t think Apple’s too concerned. I fully expect that Apple’s pro-level Macs will remain on Intel or compatible processors for a while, perhaps even indefinitely.

MacDailyNews Take: Mac users are well prepared for change, especially as we like to see Apple pushing the envelope whenever and wherever possible. We’ve been anticipating ARM-based Macs for quite a long time now and we can’t for the the process to begin!

Think code convergence (more so than today) with UI modifications per device. A unified underlying codebase for Intel, Apple A-series, and, in Apple’s labs, likely other chips, too (just in case). This would allow for a single App Store for Mac, iPhone, and iPad users that features a mix of apps: Some that are touch-only, some that are Mac-only, and some that are universal (can run on both traditional notebooks and desktops as well as on multi-touch computers like iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and – pretty please, Apple – Apple TV). Don’t be surprised to see Apple A-series-powered Macs, either.MacDailyNews Take, January 9, 2014

Apple has been, for years, building strength in the enterprise via BYOD and the rise of mobile which Apple ushered in with iPhone and iPad. “Compatibility with Windows” is not nearly as important today as it was even a few years ago… We expect to see Apple begin the ARM-based Mac transition with products like the MacBook and work their way up from there as the apps are brought over to ARM via Xcode and as the rest of the world continues to throw off the Microsoft Windows shackles into which they stupidly climbed so many years ago, lured, wrongly, solely by Windows PC sticker prices.MacDailyNews, June 19, 2019

36 Comments

  1. I moved TO using a Mac when the intel macs where released. If apple makes macs that no longer support the 90% market that is NOT on a Mac, then I’ll move off of apple also, and I’ll take all of the $$$ i’ve spent and put it elsewhere.

    Am I excited about this? No – I’m sickened by it, because I really really like OSX (it’s not a 100% like, it’s a 75% like, but far more than the 20% like for windows). I also have a requirement to run a lot of windows “stuff”, so, it isn’t a matter of some user preference I can make.

    Apple is arrogant, they have 10% of the market (plus or minus), and somehow think they can push the market in their direction. They will cut off the hand that feeds them, and alienate many “advanced and pro” users, while retaining their base of “basic users” that have an iPhone only or iPad, but no mac, or if they have a mac, it won’t matter if it’s an ARM mac or not.. sure, they may be playing to the ‘majority’ of their market, but the minority that they are alienating are the ones that brought all of those minority over to the Apple ecosystem in the first place.

    I’ve been personally responsible for brining many users over to apple, just due to my preaching about how great APPL is. I suspect that there are many hundreds, thousands, 10’s of thousands of advanced users like me that do the same, and we are responsible for a NON TRIVIAL amount of apple’s core users. Alienating the advanced users like Apple is doing will turn around and hurt them BADLY in the coming years, unless they shift gears, and recognize the influence this ‘minority’ of users has on their user base.

    I say “neglect” us too your own peril Apple, your ability to dictate the market goes only so far — exceed that threshold due to your own arrogance, and you will eventually pay the price.

    1. Our IT department rejected my request for a new MBP with 32GB RAM due to cost (16GB is NOT cutting it for the work I do). To be fair the idea of sinking $480 CAD for a 32GB RAM, and another $240CAD to upgrade to 1TB, is utter BS when 3rd party equivalents can be had for half that price, and the base machine is already $3000CAD.

      But of course Apple got greedy and won’t allow 3rd party upgrades to either RAM or SSD and charge extortionist prices for them. So I might be forced, FORCED to move to Windows hardware instead. Thanks Apple.

    2. Not sure where your concern is, or how it would affect: “90% market that is NOT on a Mac”. What advanced usage? Your experience with OSX / macOs shouldn’t fundamentally change…

      1. My point is that the Mac is about 10% of the market, and that other 90% is almost entirely on “windows/Linux” — and Intel processors.

        Currently, I can buy a mac and run most/all fo that 90% of software as needed, and also use the great Mac software that is available.

        A move to ARM based macs (exclusively… which is of course TB seen) would make the experience of using that 90% of software less desirable. ARM emulation of Intel microcode will be in inferior experience to running Intel microcode under virtualization on a current Intel based Mac.

        1. It will only be inferior if the new processors are not fast enough to run emulation at a tolerable speed. During the last two processor transitions, the new CPUs (PowerPC and Intel) were that fast. I would not be surprised to see emulation speeds with the next generation of A-series processors that could rival a stock MacBook Air at running Intel code, with recompiled apps running faster on the new machines than on the old. Approaching Mac Pro speeds is another question, of course.

          1. You only joined with Intel, so I guess you didn’t experience the switch from PPC… Apple supported both for approx 3 years.. (and it wasn’t the first time it switched core CPUs). Now with unix under the hood, it should be much easier to support different kernels for each for a while…. Side note: I think I read somewhere ARM has uses less power with the faster speed.. so start perhaps start with laptops, and desktops could still use intel? Anyway, the point is.. I’m guessing the apps probably only need to recompile to run on both architecture, and your world won’t change at all (unless you are trying to run a hackintosh or do windows emulation, native gaming) Sure there was some pain during those transitions, but mostly with cost of forced application upgrades and legacy/unsupported software that was never recompiled. I’d bet that most of your software now switched to a subscription model now so that’s probably less of an issue.

            1. I lived through the PPC transition to Intel. We had to maintain a few legacy G4 & G5 Mac towers because critical software in our business never made the transition. Eventually we had to redesign our business processes – and not all to the new Intel Macs.

              The vast majority of the company bought Dell towers and learned new software. Executives and some of the graphics jocks tried to stay with Apple but the business decision soon became obvious: the best most capable programs were Windows native. The Mac ports of the exact same software titles were missing features. The office now has a mix of PCs and Macs but almost all the Macs run Bootcamp for one thing or another. Core software is almost all Wintel, though some office workers use MS Office for the Mac with only a few missing feature issues.

              Apple has had years to invigorate the Mac app store but it’s obvious that the top-down directive from Cook has been to put all emphasis on the consumer walled moat iOS. It’s part of the planned transition to forced iCloud and subscriptions, exactly against the 1984 ad that launched the Mac.

              I do not trust Cook to offer a personal computing platform better for users and developers than the current Mac. There hasn’t been a single iOS app that comes close to the capability that PC and Mac users need everyday. Even common lightweight tasks suck on Apple’s thin clients. Email on an iOS device sucks massively. You already know that Cook is too much of a cheapskate to make the world’s best Mac software and keep it updated. Any new ARM system will have iOS apps to run. That is a non starter for me.

    3. That was a pretty strong knee jerk reaction to an unannounced product. Whilst MCK is reasonably accurate on his predictions he has been wrong in the past.
      My guess is that any ARM mac offering would be focused on the mid to low range consumer market and maybe analogous to chromebook approaches. ARM processors are considerably cheaper than Intel chips and have superior power management, so it could make Apple more competitive in that market.
      As the article clearly pointed out, Intel Macs will probably be around for a very long time. However Apple are starting to get held back by the slow development rate of Intel and the ARM processors are getting to the point that they can exceed or beat performance with many advantages such as cost, heat, energy usage.
      Also I have long given up trying to guess whether Apple made the right call in their product direction. In most cases, we have all criticized their approach initially only to realize later on what brilliant intuition they had. So if they do release an ARM Mac I will be very interested in seeing how it works and whilst it may not fit my needs, if it fills a market niche that they can dominate then that will be be exciting to see, especially as their market share is low overall.

      1. I agree, this is all speculation, so we have no real idea what Apple will actually do.

        A part of me still thinks that somehow, Tim and Friends read these articles and comments (or have a team of people read/summarize them) to keep track of the ongoing sentiments — so, part of me just wanted to weigh in on how I’d feel with a complete move to ARM – and hopefully, have some “future influence” on such a move.

        1. I was at the shareholders meeting today and I’m pretty sure they don’t waste any time reading these articles or comments, like it or not the Mac doesn’t make Tim Cook’s top 20 list of Apple priorities. Among the things highlighted this morning were the iPhone, Airpods Pro, night mode, the wearables category alone being as big as a Fortune 150 company (worth several billion more than Macs), Coronavirus, environmental sustainability, diversity, accessibility, privacy, etc. They might listen when multi-million dollar clients say something or the latest “x-gate” scandal circulates in the mass media, but iOS devices outnumber Macs roughly 15-1, and the former have higher profit margins, are purchased more frequently, are much more likely to have lucrative subscriptions and more frequent app purchases.

          You totall overestimate your own importance as a self-styled “advanced and pro user” and your arrogant dismissal of “basic users” shows your disconnect from reality. Kids, teens and millenials don’t need some Mac geezer to turn them on to Apple, they went straight to iOS because it was cool and simply the best mobile os ever. You are not and never were “the hand that feeds” Apple. Add up all the self-righteous commenters like yourself and you’ll find out you don’t represent 0.001% of Apple’s user base or revenue. I love the Mac too, but I’m under no illusions as to it’s tertiary (at best) position in Apple’s plans.

    4. “ then I’ll move off of apple also, and I’ll take all of the $$$ i’ve spent and put it elsewhere.”
      You… umm, you can’t take money you’ve already spent and put it elsewhere. Now money you have YET to spend, yeah. That you can do. And I’m sure those tens of housands of dollars that Apple won’t get will break Apple and send Tim to the poorhouse.

  2. It’s a way for apple to rotate apps out of usage and Kill hackintoshes and legacy machines. Subscriptions and new app purchases are a income source they are ingrained to force users on. The company is not for users but for themselves. The company was turned around because of the devotion to the platform from the users and the Company turned their backs on them. Before you could say the machine was for me but it’s not anymore it’s a machine that’s a way for apple to suck money out of my pocket a million different ways.

  3. Fifteen years ago, when Apple moved to Intel, it was a very good move. Suddenly, Apple computers could run Windows applications at full speed – and virtualisation software enabled people to run the odd pieces of software that were Windows only. Back then, software was sold on discs in boxes and there was not that much for the Mac.

    I think it likely that a move away from Intel might not now do that much harm and could be very beneficial. New, powerful ARM processors should have sufficient processing power to enable Windows emulation. Also, Microsoft Office and Adobe products look here to say – which could not previously be said.

    This may hamper the playing of Windows games – I am unable to know whether this will have any material impact. For most users, however, if Word, Excel, Outlook, Acrobat and the other Adobe products work as well or faster then most Mac users, who probably now use no Windows software, will likely not see any difference.

    1. New, powerful ARM processors should have sufficient processing power to enable Windows emulation

      That statement is almost certainly false. All programs run at “machine level”, regardless of how they were written. Compilers always compile down to “machine code”. Any “native” applications will absolutely suffer a significant performance penalty “running on a hardware emulator” such as an ARM unit running Intel compiled code.

      If apple supports both types of “Macs” – ARM based and Intel based, then perhaps it’s a moot point, but if they determine that “a majority” of their users only need that ARM stuff, and the other smaller “market” use the virtualization stuff — then they are neglecting the minority in favor of the majority, and making the kind of mistake I mentioned in a previous post.

      1. Why are you so sure that Apple cannot build an A-series processor that is fast enough to run Intel code in emulation at an acceptable speed? Obviously, it cannot run in emulation as fast as natively, but that isn’t the issue. The issue is whether users perceive a slowdown when moving the programs they regularly use from their old machine to the new one. The 68000 to PowerPC and PowerPC to Intel transitions both passed that test.

        1. I used the emulation on 68K processors, G5 macs – many years ago. It was horrible, suitable for only the most trivial of applications.
          Now, this is an ‘opinion’, so it really depends on what you are trying to emulate.

          In my case, I’d be trying to emulate CAD programs which are graphics and processor intensive. Any such emulation would have a penalty from emulation, far more than just running native code on a native processor under virtualization.

          You really can’t argue this point. You can state that “for some people” the emulation will be “good enough” but that’s the most you can argue. For others, the emulation will NOT be “good enough”.

          We can argue where that line is, but we can never know for sure, only time will tell.

          For me, that line will be very close to the “native speeds”, and anything must slower than that will be too slow,

          Compiling an FPGA project on native code (bootcamp) takes my about 7.2minutes. The same program compiled on Parallels using virtualization takes 15 minutes. That is not even acceptable, so I use bootcamp, which an “intel based mac” can support. An ARM based won’t ever support that, unless Microsoft and a bunch of vendors decided to compile their stuff for ARM – highly unlikely, as they don’t even both to do that now.

          Currently, I buy a (more expensive) mac and get 2 (3 really) OS’s I can run natively for the price of one machine.e

          1. Again, my point is that if “native speed” on the new computer is three times faster than the old one, and emulation slows an Intel program down by a factor of three, both computers will run Intel code at the same speed without any performance penalty.

            Emulation of Intel code on a PowerPC was horrible because G5 Macs weren’t any faster than the processors they were emulating; there was no headroom to absorb the emulation overhead. Apple switched when, and only when, it was possible to run PowerPC code in emulation on an Intel Mac as fast as it was running on a comparable PowerMac.

            Similarly, they only switched to PowerPC when the new computers could run 68000 code in emulation as fast as the old computers could run it natively.

            I would guess that any given Mac model will only switch from Intel to A-series when the new computers can execute existing code as fast as the old computers. It will run native code much faster, of course, but that does not matter to people (like you) who just want to run Intel code without taking a performance hit.

            1. I just shot from the hip on that one — Looks like you have to go back to the 90’s to find a mac with a 68K processor:

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Macintosh_models_grouped_by_CPU_type

              From there, it was all Power PC. My brothers and cousins were all “mac users” back into the 90’s, but I didn’t jump onboard until the Intel Computer Based Mac (ICBM as we call it)… so, my personal experience from the era is limited to what my brothers told or showed me.

            2. Kramer, there were PowerMac G5’s. I had one in 2003. There were also G5 iMacs and Xserves. The G5 had cooling issues, so there was no way to put one in a PowerBook. Those topped out with G4’s.

              Motorola and IBM were years behind schedule both on portable G5 processors and promised speed improvements to the desktop G5 lines. Once Apple could run PowerPC apps under Intel MacOS without a speed penalty, the transition became inevitable.

              Similarly, I would not expect a transition to A-series until the new MacOS can run legacy applications without a big speed hit.

            3. TxUser (and Ed) I’ve been a long time Mac fan since before jobs came back to Apple. I recall the G5 as never making it to production. That said, I just checked and I am wrong.

              Now I’m going to spend a little time searching the G5.

  4. “Developers will be able to create a single application that runs across all of Apple’s platforms,…”

    Does anyone know what this will actually mean? Will apps all be like the thoroughly castrated Pages… which lost HUGE amounts of functionality when made compatible with the iPad version?

  5. “I’ll wager that the first ARM Macs to arrive will offer more processing power than the devices they’re replacing, so any emulation that’s required will be relatively painless… ”

    Thus enters the unborn child of Rosetta and QuickTransit, son of Classic and Carbon, bastard cousin to Fat Binary and its Universal Binary twin, all brought to you by the Mac 68k emulator and SheepShaver, to save the day. But will Virtual ][ for the Apple ][ get emulated to bring forth goodness to ARM?

    Apple, if nothing else, has been an exercise in forward migration across platforms and processors, compete with OSes and their variety of incantations allowing the past to migrate onward as painlessly as possible. If Apple deems ARM its future, then it will be so.

    I only hope that Cook has the prescience to have been building parallel OSes, Intel and ARM starting with Catalina, so that when the next iteration of macOS is delivered and ARM appears, that the transition is seamless. Jobs mastered that art. It is the only reason the Mac survived. Can Cook continue the legacy? Only time will tell…

  6. The only way to get the new tech A series cpu’s into the Mac is to git rid of Intel, Apple can have with ARM a 12-16 hour (battery wise) laptop, the hardware tech in iPhones and iPads have to used in Mac computers it is time….

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