A new report from Bloomberg this week claimed that Apple is planning to announce the transition from Intel processors to ARM chips in the Mac lineup this month at WWDC 2020. While there’s still more than a week before the Apple event, tech analysts are speculating on how Apple will make this transition and what are the potential benefits and downsides.

John Gruber (Daring Fireball) points out the fact that Apple may reveal its plans to bring ARM chips to the Mac at this WWDC doesn’t necessarily mean that the company will release any new hardware this year.

Apple needs app developers to get ready for ARM Macs with a new version of Xcode, otherwise this new Mac wouldn’t have any compatible apps at launch. He compares this to the end of 32-bit support on macOS, which was first announced by Apple back in 2018 and discontinued last year with macOS Catalina.

Some developers — the smart ones — are effectively ready to go, and will be able to recompile their apps for ARM as soon as Apple makes a new version of Xcode available. But others will need time. I mean just look at all the consternation this past year over MacOS 10.15 Catalina dropping support for 32-bit software — a transition Apple announced several years in advance.

An architecture transition will certainly have an impact on which apps will continue to work with new Mac models. When Apple migrated from PowerPC to Intel processors, the company offered a way to emulate legacy software on newer Macs with Rosetta. But now, Gruber thinks Apple will focus only on ARM-ready software.

If I had to bet right now, I’d say no, there will be no x86 emulation on ARM Macs — and that factors into why Apple is pre-announcing this transition months ahead of releasing hardware. But that’s just my guess. In the 90s in particular, and the 2000s to a lesser degree, there was a lot of important third-party software that wasn’t easily ported. I don’t think that’s as much the case today.

ARM apps

Developers and users may think there are a lot of things that will change with ARM-based apps. For Gus Mueller (The Shape of Everything) not much will change, actually. There are still several apps, including Apple’s own, that still use the Cocoa framework and are written in Objective-C rather than Swift, so it’s very unlikely that Apple will require ARM apps to be rebuilt with Swift or SwiftUI at first.

Cocoa is the framework that drives pretty much every app on MacOS. Without NSWindow, without NSView, you’ve got no apps on the Mac […] SwiftUI is barely one year old. Look at how long it’s taken Swift to get to a point where it’s not incredibly painfully to use. […] Objective-C isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Too much of MacOS and too many important applications rely on it.

The idea of a Mac that can only run Catalyst apps, which are basically apps ported from iPadOS, is also unlikely. While there are great apps available for iPad, not all of them are as advanced as the native Mac versions, so forcing users to use them would be a drawback.

This would be a serious downgrade for users of these apps on MacOS, and would be a major departure from the way the apps currently behave on MacOS. And even with Catalyst, it’s still a lot of work for an iPad app to look and feel like a Mac app.

Mueller believes that Apple will probably let almost every app to be updated to run under the ARM architecture, except for legacy apps like the ones based on OpenGL.

OpenGL and OpenCL have been deprecated for a while now in favor of Metal. Apple will use this opportunity to drop them.

What Apple can do differently from its competitors

As Dieter Bohn wrote on The Verge, there are already some Windows computers running on ARM processors that can give us an idea of what Apple should and shouldn’t do with the Mac lineup. On the Windows side, the experience of using a computer with an ARM processor is still not good. There are performance issues and although some 32-bit apps can be emulated in ARM, 64-bit apps cannot.

Speaking of things Apple wouldn’t want: ARM-based Windows computers are slower. […] We’ve all been assuming that Apple’s much-vaunted prowess at making fast ARM chips for iPads will translate well to Macs, but there’s no guarantee that’s true until we get to test them ourselves.

He mentions that Microsoft still has plans to keep both ARM and x86 versions of Windows for a long time, as the vast majority of computers still runs with Intel or AMD processors and companies are unlikely to change that any time soon.

The problem is that since Windows ARM is not going to replace Windows x86, developers are not committed to updating their apps to take advantage of ARM hardware. Apple, on the other hand, has plans to update all the Mac line-up with ARM processors in the coming years.

When ARM-based laptops and tablets started getting released, the message was “Here’s a cool new thing you can get if you want, but the reliable old thing isn’t going anywhere.” That’s the Windows way. […] Windows on ARM simply isn’t getting the developer attention and support that standard Windows gets, both within Microsoft and outside it.

There are still many questions about Apple’s transition from Intel to ARM, but hopefully they will all be answered at WWDC 2020 on June 22nd. What are your thoughts on Apple’s plans to replace Intel with ARM processors on Mac? Let us know in the comments section below.

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