Apple made waves at WWDC this year when it announced that it’d be making its own Mac chips, switching away from the Intel processors the company has used across its laptops and desktops since 2005.
While Apple may be new to computer chips, it’s been making its own processors ever since the original iPad and the iPhone 4. In fact, it’s one of the biggest advantages to Apple’s approach to design: Apple builds the chips, Apple makes the software, and Apple designs the hardware — every part of the process is under Apple’s control. Now, Apple is potentially poised to bring those same benefits to its Macs.
The switch to ARM — which the company refers to as “Apple silicon” — is the third major hardware platform for Macs. The most recent one was the 2005 transition from PowerPC chips to Intel, which then-CEO Steve Jobs explained was for a simple reason. Apple needed the more powerful performance and better battery efficiency that Intel’s chips offered; PowerPC’s roadmap just simply wasn’t good enough for the devices Apple wanted to build.
After that change, Apple’s laptops underwent a radical change in design. The ultra-thin MacBook Air and the unibody designs for its MacBook and MacBook Pro lineups burst onto the scene, all of which have had a huge influence on the overall computer industry while still being faster than ever before. Now, Apple is citing those same promises of improved processing power and better battery life as the motivation for the latest switch to ARM, which could indicate that a similar leap forward in design could be coming.
That leaves the big question, though: how fast will Apple’s ARM chips actually be?
Unfortunately, we don’t really know yet. And while Apple makes excellent chips for iPhones and iPads, the most powerful ARM computers on the market right now are ultraportable laptops like the Surface X or the Samsung Galaxy Book S — a far cry from even high-performance laptops like the MacBook Pro, to say nothing of Apple’s desktops like the iMac or the professional-grade Mac Pro.
Plus, there’s the question of software. A new hardware platform means developers will have to port things over, which could lead to issues with incompatible apps or just straight-up missing software. We’ve seen it before with the Surface X, which had its beautiful design undermined by a poor selection of software to actually use with it.
Apple does have a few aces up its sleeve, though. As longtime Mac developer Mark Bessey tells The Verge, a key difference is that “everybody uses Xcode now. There are no other developer environments that have any traction now in Mac development,” meaning that for most developers, switching to ARM is as easy as updating their app for any new version of macOS and Xcode.
Then, of course, there’s the iPhone. All of the apps that already run on iOS will work natively on the new Macs, meaning that there’ll be a huge amount of software ready to go on day one. Bessey also speculates that bridging the platforms together could see a burst of new Mac apps that are universal across iOS, iPad, and macOS. Where developers may not have had an incentive to create a native Mac app before, the new ARM-based architecture means that it’ll be far easier to expand iPhone and iPad apps to the desktop platform.
It’s an exciting time for the Mac. And who knows? Maybe Apple will keep on borrowing ideas from the iPhone and finally add touchscreens to its next wave of computers, too.