Apple plans to drop Intel processors and switch its Macs to ARM chips. It is currently one of the worst kept secrets of technology. According to the latest reports, the transition will be announced at this year's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). With the upcoming change, people have been wondering if Apple has what it takes to make the change a success.
After all, the way to ARM-based PCs is fraught with problems. Microsoft has tried several times just to fail in key areas such as performance and software compatibility. We have the right to be skeptical of Apple's own attempts, but given the evidence, Apple is as well armed as any other company to handle this transition.
Not Apple's first rodeo
Moving to ARM is a radical change in the Mac system architecture. New architecture means new software that was Microsoft's Achilles heel when Microsoft tried to switch to ARM. If Apple is not careful, its new MacBooks could suffer the same fate as the Surface Pro X. Due to the changed system architecture, this flagship cannot run many of the apps that are expected on a Windows laptop.
Fortunately, Apple already has experience in solving this problem. Apple discontinued Motorola processors in favor of PowerPC early on. More recently, Apple has even phased out 32-bit apps on its MacOS platform, which has often resulted in developers having to rewrite apps for 64-bit compatibility.
However, the transition from PowerPC processors to Intel is the most relevant example. Apple provided developers with software called Rosetta. This “dynamic binary translator” worked in the background to seamlessly translate PowerPC apps into software that can run on Intel's x86 architecture.
Apple uses a similar method when transitioning to ARM. The company has been working on solving this problem for years with an out-of-the-box app translation tool called Mac Catalyst. This tool is currently used to port iPad apps to Mac. The iPad already runs on an ARM-based architecture, so Apple already has access to an impressive ecosystem of apps that can run on its ARM-based MacBooks.
That is, provided that Catalyst is largely taken over by developers.
While Mac Catalyst had some early issues, most of the developers I spoke to were satisfied with Apple's efforts in this area. Many noticed how Mac Catalyst made porting an app to a different architecture fairly easy – much easier than developing a new Mac app from scratch. However, it is still an ongoing project and I expect to hear other news about Mac Catalyst at WWDC besides Apple's big ARM announcement.
Example A: The iPad
Andy Boxall / DigitalTrends.com
The iPad itself is another example of how well Apple is positioned for the transition. The processors used in these new ARM-based MacBooks are reportedly based on Apple's A-series chips used in mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad Pro. We don't know exactly which chips will be used, but Apple is slated to switch to its first 5nm processors on many devices later this year. Regardless, Apple's A-series processors are absolutely fantastic.
Let's look at the raw numbers. When we tested the iPhone 11 Pro, it scored 455,778 points in the AnTuTu benchmarking app. This is the highest score we have ever recorded for a smartphone. The 2020 iPad Pro? This achieved 717,717 points – more than twice as much as Samsung achieved with its Galaxy Tab S6. In other words, Apple knows exactly how to create incredibly powerful processors that scale to different devices with a variety of performance requirements.
Granted, it is one thing to develop a successful mobile processor and another to develop one that performs well on desktop computers. Microsoft's attempts to replicate the performance of Intel laptops have so far failed to produce the most convincing results, even with Qualcomm as a committed partner.
No, we don't know exactly how well Apple's ARM chips work in MacBooks. But at least Apple has a lead over its competitors.
World first? Nah
Being first was never in Apple's ethos. Many companies hurry to bring new products to the market just to earn the "world first" title, regardless of how well these products actually work. We see it with advanced new form factors like the Samsung Galaxy Fold as well as new technologies like 5G. Apple wasn't the first to make a smartphone, tablet, or smartwatch, but it's the most successful device in each of these categories.
The company seems happy to wait marginally until it can nail the product down and do what it thinks is the best version in the world. Do you remember AirPower? Apple scrapped it because it didn't live up to expectations. It could probably have put a mediocre charger on the market, but that's not Apple's style. We can argue about whether Apple always achieves its high goals, but it has never been his guiding principle to put products first.
When Apple launches its ARM-based MacBooks, they're not the first laptops to try it. But as far as I can tell, these MacBooks may be the first to do it successfully.