How Microsoft Can Study From Apple’s Mac ARM Transition

Microsoft has tried several times in the past 10 years to switch to ARM chips. All of them were failed attempts.

At Monday's Worldwide Developers Conference, however, Apple announced its own plans to switch from Intel processors to its own ARM-based chips by the end of this year. But in the case of Apple, it could work.

Apple seemed crucial and planned, going from app compatibility to performance, explaining how ARM Macs would benefit both developers and consumers. If Microsoft ever wants to do something similar, it should take notes.

Developer, developer, developer

iPads, Windows laptops and iMac professionals would be nothing without third-party developers. They encode the apps you use and the games you play. This is why a company has to listen to what developers have to say when changing the system architecture. Any kind of transition requires development effort and these developers have to convince.

You can't say Microsoft hasn't tried it. From Visual Studio to the developer-friendly community GitHub to the Windows Insider program, Microsoft offers its developers numerous dedicated tools. Microsoft even launched Project Reunion to help developers program better apps. However, attempts to standardize the platform for developers have always failed.

Whether it was about forcing unwilling developers into the Windows 8 era or refusing to choose a site since then, the transition from Microsoft to ARM has always stumbled upon developer support. Windows developers need to code separate 32-bit apps for ARM devices like Surface Pro X and other Always Connected PCs. This is because Windows 10 on ARM isn't optimized for more popular 64-bit apps. This is also the reason why some apps and peripherals just don't work on these devices.

For this reason, Microsoft had to rely heavily on the emulation of 32-bit desktop apps. As so often, emulation leads to performance problems – even with popular apps like Google Chrome. Google is in the same boat with its Chrome OS support for Android apps.

The lack of native apps has always been the missing piece of the puzzle, and that's exactly what characterizes Apple's approach.

Select a page

Apple has not emulated its transition announcement. The idea was to convince developers to create native apps. It starts with Apple's Universal App quick start program. Although not free, it provides developers with the tools they need to switch to ARM in a matter of days – at least according to Apple.

The program provides access to documentation, forums, and supports beta versions of MacOS Big Sur and Xcode 12. Xcode 12 includes tools such as Universal 2, an application binary that supports both Intel and Apple Silicon systems. Developers don't have to bet on where Apple's support is.

There's even a Developer Transition Kit (DTK) that provides developers with an example of a Mac Mini with the A12Z Bionic SoC that they can encode their apps on before the public can access them.

Apple also has its own emulation, but only as a backup solution. Rosetta 2 allows users to run existing Mac apps that have not yet been updated, including those with plug-ins. The performance is still unknown, but there is no rush here. Smaller applications that users rely on don't just refuse to run. This is particularly important because Macs with Intel technology have been around for 15 years (and will continue to do so in the future).

However, there is no question where Apple's support is located. Native targets that run on ARM-based Macs in the target. Mac Catalyst can even try to flood the Mac App Store with more native apps, even though they are ports for iPad apps.

Time to curl a few feathers

Microsoft's longstanding strategy to support both older and modern applications has split and weakened the ecosystem. Windows 10X should be Microsoft's own attempt to modernize, but Microsoft has again allowed to play on both sides. It doesn't want to upset Intel, its hardware partners, or its older developer community.

But it can't go on forever. After all, Microsoft has to choose a direction and go forward. If you're still wondering how to do that, Apple just showed the way.

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