The great ARM migration


Apple are reportedly going to be transitioning from using Intel processors to their own custom ARM processors for their Mac lineup, due to be announced at WWDC next week. I find this incredibly exciting and just want to run through some of my thoughts about this.

Why are Apple moving to ARM?

Why have Apple decided to migrate to using their own processors? Well there are a few reasons for why Apple might want to do this.

The first being that in recent years Intel have really been dropping the ball with their iterative improvements and delays to their own product roadmap which have impacted Apple and resulted in not the most amazing year-on-year performance improvements (CPU wise) for the Mac. Apple producing their own processors for the Mac would remove this dependency and allow Apple to exert greater control over the direct performance improvements they provide to their computers allowing for potentially better performance just as they have done with the iPhone which thoroughly smashes every other smartphone when comparing CPU power.

The second reason is Apple's seemingly continuous obsession with trying to develop every bit of hardware they use themselves allowing them to be less reliant on other companies and this has been shown by how more and more of the iPhone over the years has slowly been using more in house hardware components, most notably being Apple’s very own A series processors that are used in the iPhone and things like the T2 security chip.

Effects of the move to ARM

The effects of this move will probably be quite profound as for Mac users it could result in much more power efficient Macs due to ARM’s architecture but also potentially more powerful Macs depending on how well Apple’s custom processors perform in a Mac. They have already proved that they can make amazing processors for the iPhone and iPad, so it will be interesting to see how well they fare with something like a Macbook which has a very different cooling system and a bigger device footprint for them to work with.

However not everything about this move is likely to be sunshine and rainbows as the likelihood is that when Apple releases the first ARM powered Mac the software support from third party developers might not be there. It's going to take effort from developers to port their apps to the new architecture which costs time and money, so it's unlikely that everyone's favorite apps and services will be available on day one. Some developers may even use it as an opportunity to drop support for the Mac and older legacy apps which may not be in active development anymore and so may be left behind forever.

Although maybe Apple will surprise me, and it will be as simple as clicking a button in Xcode and your app will be ready for the ARM revolution, knowing Apple it probably won't be that simple however we will have to wait for WWDC to find out.

How will this affect the wider industry?

Apple is very much a trend setter. When Apple removed the headphone jack, everyone removed the headphone jack, some even ripped Apple for it only to remove it the next year (looking at you Google). When Apple added a notch to the iPhone, everyone added a notch to their phones. When Apple released the airpods people laughed at them however they are now very much a fashion symbol spurring massive growth for Apple’s wearables business and companies are shamelessly ripping them off all over the place.

Apple moving to ARM could signal a similar move for the wider industry. We already have windows on ARM and Chrome OS on ARM and pretty much all smartphones and mobile platforms run on ARM chips already. This move could very well result in the desktop and laptop world moving to produce more ARM laptops and could potentially mean companies start to try and invest in their own processors in an effort to try and beat Apple at their own game. There are already rumours around Google developing their own ARM processors potentially for the Pixel phones but also maybe for their chromebooks as well. A product area they are increasingly trying to market as actual laptops.

Although Apple moving away from Intel isn't the end of the world for Intel considering how small Mac market share is for global PC sales, the impact of a general shift to ARM for the wider industry could be fairly damaging to the company. Intel hasn't been having a fun time in recent years by being absolutely destroyed by AMD product wise in the CPU market and having lots of manufacturing trouble trying to perfect their own 10nm process. More manufacturers leaving them for ARM will be damaging to their bottom line however on a positive note maybe it will get them to get off their backside and make some better CPU’s.

Dunking on people's opinions

I just want to take a moment to dunk on some peoples opinions around this whole subject around ARM on the Mac. A fairly common outlook on this that I seem to see mainly from Apple fanboys is that Apple’s move to ARM for the Mac is going to be amazing, “DON'T BUY A MAC NOW WAIT FOR ARM”, “AN ARM MAC IS AN INSTANT BUY” and similar statements and phrases are generally being thrown around.

Although im really excited for this move and am incredibly interested in how it all unfolds I think it's a bit stupid to say that there is no point buying a Mac now BeCaUsE ArM Is aRoUnD ThE CoRnEr as the fact is this is not a move that going to happen overnight. 2021 seems the earliest that we will be getting an actual ARM Mac for consumers and even then for professionals and developers the software and tools they use may not even be available on ARM Macs yet. And even if all the software support was there on day one they are not going to drop support overnight for 2-year-old Macs. (Watch Apple go and prove me wrong now)

The future of Mac

Another interesting thing with Apple at the moment is their insistence on making the iPad more of a laptop so people can use it more like a 2 in 1 such as the Microsoft Surface. This leaves the Mac in a very interesting situation because if Apple wants people to buy iPads and use them instead of a laptop why would someone ever buy a Mac? And to be honest most people don't need a Mac, an iPad can do everything that they would ever need to do and its capabilities keep on increasing with each update (e.g. recent mouse and trackpad support) leaving really only power users, enthusiasts and professionals who will keep buying Macs because they can't get all of their work done on an iPad, yet.

This makes Apple's move to ARM more interesting as I could very much see this as a way of slowly moving more Mac users to the iPad before eventually replacing the Mac altogether. Big statement I know but hear me out. By Apple transitioning to ARM that will mean that all software running on the Mac will be built to run on their very own ARM processors, the same sort of processors that Apple uses in the iPad. Apple has also been pushing SwiftUI which is a development framework that allows devs to create apps that function and scale across Apples portfolio of products. This could eventually lead to the apps on iPad and the apps on Mac converging to the point where both devices literally run the same software. In some ways this is already happening with catalysts which allows devs to port their iPad apps to Mac.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this but over the years Apple has increasingly been neglecting the Mac line and has instead continuously been trying to push the iPad as a real computer and I feel that maybe in the next ten years we could see the end of the Mac… or maybe things will continue on as they always have, the iPad will be used by most people but the Mac will still be used by people that actually want to get work done and this convergence never happens. I guess we will have to wait and see.

The end

In conclusion Apple moving from intel to ARM is very exciting but not without its ups and downs. Only time will tell how it ends up. And with only a few days to go to WWDC where it's been rumoured that they are going to announce this move it seems it won't be long until we find out, unless of course the leaks were wrong and Apple does not move to ARM and then me and a load of other people are going to look like a bunch of idiots.