WWDC 2020 had lots of big announcements but the main highlight of the event was Apple’s move to ARM-based processors. Indeed, the rumours were true as Apple’s big move signals a more unified ecosystem that would allow the newly announced macOS Big Sur to support both native iOS apps as well as macOS apps side-by-side in future hardware.
Apple expects to ship the first Mac with Apple Silicon by the end of the year. It also intends to implement a gradual transition away from Intel-chips over two years. Apple said it won’t be making a sudden shift to ARM-based Macs just yet. It will still be producing Intel-powered Macs in the future though it did not give a definite time when it will stop support.
After 15 years of using Intel processors, performance gains are gradually slowing down. If Apple were to stick to Intel’s development roadmap, it would have potentially delay development for its future products.
Apple has been down this road before. It has changed the processors used by its computers just twice in its entire history. The first was in the early 1990s when it switched from Motorola processors to PowerPC and later in 2005 when then Apple chief executive officer Steve Jobs moved from PowerPC to Intel.
For over a decade now, Apple has been building its own system on chips (SoCs) for both the iPhone and iPad. The introduction of the first Retina Display iPad, known as the iPad 3 in 2012, pushed Apple to design SoCs that are specially designed for its tablets.
Its senior vice president of hardware technologies Johny Srouji touted how Apple has come a long way to develop power SoCs like latest iPad Pro’s A12X that is claimed to deliver over 1,000x faster graphics performance compared to the original iPad. “This is one of the reasons why the iPad Pro is faster than the vast majority of laptop PCs today,” he said. Apple is bringing this same approach in designing its SoCs for its hardware, to scale up its architecture for the Mac.
Having a common ARM-based architecture means that developers will be able to make apps for all of Apple’s devices from the iPhone, iPad to the Apple Watch. Cupertino also said this would greatly expand the variety of apps available to the Mac in the future.
Expect to see iPhone and iPad apps from the App Store running on macOS. Apple demonstrated iOS apps like Monument Valley 2, guitar lesson app Fender Play and meditation app Calm running natively on a development Mac running on macOS Big Sur.
Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, who commanded most of the show, said the vast majority of developers will be able to get their apps up and running on the new operating system within days.
To illustrate this point, Apple said it has already worked with Microsoft to optimise its Office productivity suite to run natively on the new Apple Silicon. Everything from Word, Excel and PowerPower, which takes advantage of Apple’s Metal tech for rendering, ran fine during the demo on the live stream. Adobe is also on board as Apple demonstrated Lightroom and Photoshop running smoothly on the new chip. Apple showed how its new Macs were powerful enough to process a 5GB Photoshop PSD without any slowdowns.
There will also be a new version of the Rosetta app, a callback to the app of the same name that helped transition PowerPC apps to Intel-based Macs back in 2006. Rosetta 2, as it is known, will automatically translate apps written for Intel-based Macs to ARM Macs. Apple claims even if developers have not fully updated their apps, they should still work without needing any modification. The company also announced virtualisation software that will allow ARM Macs to run other operating systems like Linux.
For developers eager to jump in and start developing apps for the new ARM-based Macs, Apple is launching a new “quick start” program. It will offer them documentation, sample code and access to labs around the world to help them transition their existing apps.
Those that sign up will get their hands on a Developer Transition Kit: a refurbished Mac Mini that runs on a special A12Z bionic chip with desktop level architecture, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD and a variety of Mac I/O ports. This A12Z bionic chip should be similar to the unit powering the new 2020 iPad Pro.