Jun 10, 2020 - Technology

Apple's challenges as it swaps out the Mac's brain

Illustration of the Apple logo made out of a computer chip.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Apple is on the verge of transitioning the Mac from Intel processors to homegrown chips — a move that, even if it pays off in the long term, could mean hassles and tough choices over the next few years for developers and consumers.

The big picture: The move is a blow to Intel, long the U.S. microprocessor leader. Whether it is a win for Apple depends on the eventual cost savings and performance gains, as well as how smoothly Apple is able to handle its transition without losing customers and app developers.

Driving the news: Bloomberg reported Tuesday that Apple may announce its plans for the shift at its Worldwide Developer Conference, scheduled to take place online this month.

  • The move is not a surprise. Bloomberg has been reporting it for a while, as has Axios. What's new is that the change seems imminent.

Why it matters: The shift creates dilemmas both for customers deciding what to buy and when, and for software developers allocating scarce programming resources.

Flashback: Apple has changed the types of chips powering the Mac line twice before. In 1994, it switched away from the Motorola chips that powered the first Macintoshes to PowerPC chips, jointly developed by IBM and Motorola. Then, starting in 2005, it moved from PowerPC to Intel.

Consumers and businesses looking to buy a Mac computer in the next year or so will have to decide between two not-so-great options:

  • Buy one of the last of the old computers, and accept that there will be new software in a couple of years that doesn't work on your machine...
  • Or hang on to the old computer and buy one of the first new machines, even though it may not yet fully support much or all the software you need.

Developers face a dilemma of their own: when to put resources behind optimizing key programs for the new chips. Even after Apple officially announces the move and provides the tools, developers know that the base of potential users for the new software will start from zero.

Between the lines: Apple has a pretty good track record here, having managed past chip transitions — as well as the shift from classic Mac OS to OS X — fairly successfully. There were bumps, to be sure, and some applications took years to be converted, but in the end, everyone made it across, and the platform was stronger for it.

  • There will likely be some sort of compatibility layer allowing existing apps designed for Intel chips to run on the new Apple-made chips — as well as tools to help developers convert their programs without starting from scratch.
  • That said, such approaches have a mixed track record and can slow performance.

Yes, but: This transition differs from Apple's previous ones in a couple of ways.

  • The Mac isn't the center of Apple's business any more. Most of Apple's revenue comes from iPhones and other non-Mac product lines, including iPads, peripherals and services.
  • And, speaking of iPhones and iPads, Apple isn't moving to a brand-new architecture, but rather to ARM-based chips similar to those that power Apple's iOS devices. That means some work can be ported from existing iOS apps.

Our thought bubble: In addition to sharing the time frame and particulars of the transition, Apple needs to answer why it needs another change in chips. Some developers say the shift will only be worth the effort if it provides a truly meaningful performance boost.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been trying to open up Windows to ARM-based processors for years now, with little success.

  • Each time, Microsoft and a chipmaker partner, such as Qualcomm, promise improved battery life and wireless capabilities — but performance and compatibility issues have consistently sent the companies back to the drawing board.

The bottom line: Apple's motivations for the move likely include an opportunity to cut costs, an effort to boost performance, and a desire to control its own destiny. But even if the company gets all those wishes — and even if it manages the transition well — the whole Mac community is probably headed for some short-term pain.

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