Jun 23, 2020 - Technology

Making sense of the Mac's transition to Apple chips

Illustration of a Mac loading screen with an iPhone icon instead of an Apple logo.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Though Apple's announcement that it will move the Mac to homegrown chips was long expected, the company has now filled in the blanks for when that shift will start, how long it will take and what developers must do to get ready.

Between the lines: Apple laid out the shape of its chip transition and lined up its key partners Adobe and Microsoft — but some observers say the company didn't fully explain how the shift will benefit developers and consumers.

Driving the news:

  • CEO Tim Cook said Monday that the first Macs powered by an Apple-designed processor will arrive before the end of the year, though the full transition from Intel-powered machines will take two years.
  • Apple announced several ways for developers to get their apps to run on the new chips, including tools to create apps that run on both chips and a translation engine that will allow apps written for Intel processors to run (albeit more slowly perhaps) on Apple-powered Macs.
  • Cook also said Apple will support Intel-powered Macs for years to come, noting that several such machines have yet to be introduced.

The big picture: Apple has perhaps more experience shifting its platform than any other tech company.

  • It has made two big processor shifts, going from Motorola to PowerPC processors in 1994 and from PowerPC to Intel, starting in 2005, as well as a major operating system shift from classic MacOS to the Unix-based MacOS X in the early 2000s.

One key lesson Apple seems to have learned is the importance of working with major partners early on, something it didn't always do in the past.

  • Monday, Apple showed Microsoft's Word and Excel running on Apple chips, as well as Adobe's Photoshop and Lightroom.
  • Adobe also has Premiere running on Apple chips, CTO and strategy chief Abhay Parasnis told Axios.

That matters because, unlike simpler apps which need only be recompiled to run on different chips, more work is needed for complex programs, especially graphically demanding ones like Adobe's.

  • "It's a lot of work," Parasnis said, while also praising Apple for providing both more advance notice and needed technical support.

Yes, but: Apple's move from PowerPC to Intel came after years of lagging performance. Everyone saw it needed to be done.

  • This time around, the benefits to Apple are clear: cost savings, greater control of its destiny and the ability to more tightly integrate its hardware and software.
  • But it's less clear what consumers and developers will gain.
  • "Before developers lift a finger, they should ask themselves what they get from making investments to change any of their code," said Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead.

Be smart: The chip shift is part of a larger coming together of Apple's mobile and desktop ecosystems, a process that has been under way for some time.

  • Apple suggested Monday that iOS apps will run natively on the new Macs. (A tool called Catalyst lets developers port iPad apps to the Mac, but it will be easier post-transition.) So, while Mac developers face a bumpy transition, those writing iOS apps just got a new market.
  • The new macOS, dubbed Big Sur, also brings over other features from iOS, including similar notifications and visual elements.

What's next: Mac buyers who need a computer over the next year face a tough decision. Historically, neither the last models on an old architecture nor the first machines on a new one have proven to be great buys.

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