During this year’s Worldwide Developer Conference, WWDC, Apple announced the long-rumored start of the transition from Macs that run on Intel CPUs to their own in-house designed CPUs, currently referred to as “Apple Silicon”.
All of This Has Happened Before
If you are a user who came to the Macintosh platform during or after 2006, don’t worry. This is actually the third time Apple has made a big architecture shift like this. Apple’s first Macintosh architecture transition was in 1994 from the Motorola 68000-series processors, the ones that were used in the original Macintosh line up, to the PowerPC 601 CPU first introduced in the Macintosh PowerPC 6100. Then, in 2005, Apple again transitioned the Mac. This time from the PowerPC architecture to the Intel Core Duo architecture. The move to Intel processors also had a side benefit in that Mac could directly boot into Windows; something that had previously required special hardware cards or slow virtualization software. Clearly, moving from one processor architecture to another is something that Apple has some experience with. The move from one CPU architecture to another is an extremely complicated effort. Apple spends years planning for and laying the groundwork components for such a transition years in advance. For example, discarding 32-bit app support from 2019’s macOS Mojave was, in retrospect, a major leading indicator for the start of the Apple Silicon transition in 2020. Tim Cook’s words at WWDC 2020 carry the same message as Steve Jobs’ during WWDC 2005 right down to the dad joke about secret labs and double lives.
Moving to Apple Silicon
Starting with the A4 processor, Apple has been designing and using their own special blend of CPUs. Apple’s custom purpose-built processes have been used in 2010’s iPhone 4 and the original iPad. Apple has continued to press their custom processor advantage by building an in-house team of chip designers that has powered iOS and iPadOS devices to greater levels of performance year-over-year. Johny Srouji’s silicon team has been very, very busy.
One of the big advantages to Apple’s CPUs is that they aren’t just CPUs. Apple refers to their processors as “systems on a chip”. In traditional Intel Macs, there are discrete CPUs, graphics processing chips, known as GPUs, and RAM. For example, a current iMac will have an Intel Core i7 Coffee Lake CPU and will have to send messages between the AMD Radeon Pro GPU and memory. Communicating between these components takes time. Apple’s A-Series SoCs, including the first Macs running Apple Silicon due out late this year, give these machines a performance boost over those that use off the shelf commodity parts.
Using their own SoCs gives Apple another strategic advantage – they are able to develop key customer facing features such as Touch ID and Face ID which required the use of the technology that is found in the iPhone’s T2 secure enclave. While Apple didn’t specifically talk about future Macintosh products during the online only developer conference back in June, I expect the first Apple Silicon iMac to have Face ID. While today’s Intel-powered MacBooks have Touch ID, the current design requires a heavy amount of engineering to fully integrate the T2 co-processor with the Intel CPU. I expect that the first Apple laptop with Apple Silicon will have a much cleaner, streamlined implementation.
Besides performance, I am particularly interested in seeing where Apple Silicon Macs go in terms of customer security and privacy, machine learning (i.e.: high quality ML search results in large Photo libraries), and quality of life features (i.e.: Apple Pay and Apple Watch unlock).
What About Virtualization and Thunderbolt Support?
The switch over to Apple Silicon won’t be without tradeoffs and compromises during the two-year transition period. Since the announcement at WWDC, two big questions have come up about key features of Intel Macs.
The first is what about virtualization? Virtualization allows customers to run Microsoft Windows and other operating systems. Apple has said that their first party solution, Boot Camp, will only work on Intel-based Macs. For Apple Silicon Macs, Apple will be introducing a new virtualization layer and re-introducing key technologies from the PowerPC to Intel transition: Universal 2 and Rosetta 2. With Universal 2, app developers will be able to compile and deploy apps for both Apple Silicon and Intel Macs. Rosetta 2 will help protect customer’s investment in software by enabling software written only for Intel Macs to run smoothly on Apple Silicon Macs running macOS 11 Big Sur. During the keynote, Docker and Parallels were both specifically mentioned as a way to run containers and Linux virtual machines on Apple Silicon Macs running Big Sur. Since Apple Silicon Macs are based on the same processor architecture as iPhone and iPad, iOS and iPadOS apps will now be able to be natively run on new Macs without modification. This will be a boon for customers and developers alike as the number of apps and customers will increase.
But what about Mac users who rely on the ability to run Microsoft Windows for things like Active Directory management tools and Windows-only business applications, including Microsoft Project and Microsoft Visio? Presumably, virtualization vendors VMware and Parallels will be working on solutions for Apple Silicon Mac. This, however, is not a forgone conclusion. Shortly after Apple’s announcement, Fusion developer VMware posted a question to Twitter asking how customers would use their software on Apple Silicon.
One possible solution would be Apple and Microsoft working together to bring Windows on ARM support to Apple Silicon and macOS Big Sur. Microsoft’s Surface X PC already runs a version of Windows 10 that has been optimized to run on a custom Qualcomm ARM chip known as the Microsoft SQ1 SoC. Such a deal could go a long way to virtualizing Windows on Macs similar to how Windows runs on Intel Macs today. At the very least, such a deal could be a leg up for VMware and Parallels products. Microsoft is working collaboratively to make sure that Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) are ready for Apple Silicon-powered Macs. Anything is possible from the sometimes partners and sometimes rivals. I like to think that there will be a solution for running Windows and Windows-only application on Apple Silicon Macs, but I won’t be counting on the ability to virtualize Windows on an Apple Silicon Mac into my buying decision at the end of the year.
At the tail end of 2019, Apple began shipping their new Mac Pro tower and Pro Display XDR. The Pro Display XDR, a several thousand-dollar professional workflow monitor, uses Thunderbolt 3 technology to connect it to compatible 2019 and 2020 Macs. The Thunderbolt 3 standard requires and Intel CPU and is one of the reasons why the 2018 and 2020 iPad Pro tablets have USB-C only ports. The good news is that Apple plans on protecting their customer’s investment in the 32-inch 6k display technology. Intel recently announced the USB-C 4 and Thunderbolt 4 standard, which is based on the same USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 connector port. Apple, in a statement to news outlets, said that, “We remain committed to the future of Thunderbolt and will support it in Macs with Apple silicon.” While Apple did not get into specifics of how they will bring USB-C 4 and Thunderbolt 4 to future Macs, we now know that existing and new peripherals based on the Intel standards will continue to be supported into the future.
Buying Advice and the Future
The announcement of Apple Silicon Macs and macOS 11 Big Sur make for an exciting time for Macintosh fans. Just as the transition to Intel CPUs unlocked better performance, Apple Silicon Macs will usher in the next decade of new features for customers.
With that said, the next two years are going to be in flux. If you are a tech enthusiast, then you are probably going to be like me and will want to get your hands on a new Apple Silicon Mac as soon as you can. As an early adopter you will not doubt run into some compatibility issues with existing software and peripherals. 2020 Apple Silicon Macs, after all, will be “1.0” devices. Apple Silicon hardware released in late 2021 and beyond will have the benefit of feedback from late 2020 and early 2021 Apple Silicon Macs. You should avoid buying a new Apple Silicon Mac with the hope that one day a feature you need or want will be supported.
If you are someone who just prefers the Mac, then buy the best Mac you can when the need comes up. Don’t worry about which chip is in your new Mac. You will receive years of support and trouble-free use for years to come.
If you are a professional who relies on the Mac to get your work done, you will have some decisions to make. If you find yourself working primarily in Adobe Creative Cloud products, Microsoft Office, and Autodesk Maya and Cinema 4D, you may be ready for the new platform. However, if you look down the list of software and features that just have to work flawlessly, then, your best bet is to stick with the Intel Mac you have today or purchase a new Intel Mac when you need one during the next 18 months.
The future of the Macintosh platform is brighter as it has ever been, and I am looking forward to the new features!