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Editorial: Apple's move to ARM is possible because most users want power more than compatibility

From the DOS Compatible Mac (left) to Boot Camp

What was once at least a concern and often the barrier that stopped Mac sales, cross-platform software compatibility is now mostly irrelevant to the wider user base — and we all stand to benefit.

Twenty-five years ago, I was features editor on PC Direct and had a monthly column in Macworld UK about working with both Macs and PCs. It was about how to read PC floppies, how to work with people when you're on the Mac and they're on Windows. Hand on heart, it's difficult to remember now what it was about because it's a quarter of a century ago and none of it is needed anymore.

This week, Jason Snell of the US Macworld argued that Apple had once needed to be compatible with PCs and other industry standards, but it isn't any more and it doesn't have to be. To check the numbers, an AppleInsider poll asked readers a similar question about whether they used Bootcamp or any way of running Windows on their Mac.

Of the 782 responses to that on Twitter, 65% said no, they only needed Macs to be Macs. That does leave 35% who do need Windows compatibility, and they had many good points such as needing the Excel macros that aren't available in the Mac version of that app.

However, that is 35% of AppleInsider readers and followers who responded. AppleInsider readers as a whole have long experience and familiarity with the Mac and you can presume that they push the machines to the limit. And you can be certain that the majority of Mac users today do not do that.

The majority don't need Windows

So for them, for Apple's biggest user base, the need for Windows compatibility isn't the same as it is for the main readers of this site. This need for Windows compatibility has gone from when there was enough interest and plenty enough to say that I had many months employment, to now when Windows and Boot Camp is a tool for specialist users like AppleInsider readers.

It's also gone from incompatibility meaning that Macs used proprietary ports and connectors to now, when Apple either follows standards or is how certain ones like Thunderbolt become mainstream.

Whenever you bought a Mac, you always bought it because you needed what it could do. Today, given the evolution of the web and cloud services, most needs don't automatically include worrying about what platform a client of yours is using. And, if Apple has actually got us to this stage through successive deliberate moves such as the forthcoming move to only allowing 64-bit apps, it feels as if we've got here by stealth.

I did leave computer journalism for drama, and then back again, but I never left the Mac. Until today there was no one moment when I really realized how big a change Apple was going through. I obviously did notice when I lost the Macworld UK commission, but I didn't notice when I stopped being mailed PC floppies or had to use Apple File Exchange to open documents.

William Gallagher working on a PC magazine and writing about Macs in 1993. I still have the hair. You're never going to check.
William Gallagher working on a PC magazine and writing about Macs in 1993. I still have the hair. You're never going to check.

There's no question that, as Snell says, Apple needed to drop its proprietary hardware over a decade ago. But, as well as making the Mac more compatible, that move also freed up Apple. Instead of reinventing everything and creating new prayers for the SCSI terminator gods, Apple could buy more widely used components and concentrate on making everything else.

That included dropping components as well as creating them. Even as it was struggling to climb back up into being relevant, the Mac still shed devices like the CD drive. Apple did not just cave in and make a PC with Mac OS 9 on it.

Then there is also no question that the internet helped get Apple out of its dependency on compatibility. When someone can email you a Word document, you don't need a floppy drive that can read PC disks. When you're filling out a form on the web, no decently coded site should care what machine you're typing on.

However, it has also got to be the case that the iPhone has played a part here.

No standards

Back before my '90s computer journalism days, there were the years where every company brought out incompatible machines and then there were ones where they didn't. There might have been the odd attempt to break the Mac/PC stranglehold, and that may have included good machines like the Amiga.

On the whole though, we had a long patch where you bought a Mac or you bought a PC — and in truth, most people bought a PC.

The Quadra 610 DOS Compatible Mac (photo: Low End Mac)
The Quadra 610 DOS Compatible Mac (photo: Low End Mac)

No matter how good the Mac was, it wasn't able to get people to switch from PCs in significant numbers. Yet then came the iPhone, and that was so extraordinarily good that it became peculiar to buy anything else. And then the iPad came, and dominated the tablet market that Microsoft had been trying to pin down for a decade.

The arrival of Android has changed all of this somewhat, but with the iPhone and the iPad, was still the case that some people were seeing Apple's computing work for the first time and they were liking it very, very much.

The iPhone came out in 2007 and shortly before it, Apple moved the Mac from PowerPC to Intel. That was a difficult technical and business challenge that the company pulled off so well that we barely noticed it and we don't remember what it was like.

Adobe was slow to move its apps to run on Intel on the Mac, for instance, because it knew it could be because Apple wasn't a priority then. "Although Mac OS X has been shipping almost for ten years now, Adobe just adopted it fully two weeks ago when they shipped CS5," wrote Steve Jobs in 2010. "Adobe was the last major third party developer to fully adopt Mac OS X."

You may not be able to read my handwriting, but that's
You may not be able to read my handwriting, but that's "Apple File Exchange," amongst others, on the top disc.

Jobs wrote that in his famous memo about Flash on the iPhone. Adobe thought it could force Apple to use Flash on the iPhone and wrote Steve Jobs in 2010. Microsoft complained too.

They were both wrong and today we have Microsoft making its best-ever Word and Excel for the iPad. They could still kill a few more bugs in the Mac version, but they're working with Apple and Adobe is currently bringing Photoshop to the iPad.

Apple is no longer the other platform, the one you mop up after you've done Windows.

You can run Windows 10 on your Mac... it's not just clear now why you'd want to
You can run Windows 10 on your Mac... it's not just clear now why you'd want to

Only, I deliberately said Apple there, not Mac. It is the combination of the Mac and iOS, it is the Apple ecosystem, that is appealing to users and in sufficient volume that it's therefore appealing to developers.

It's the same for Apple as it always has been for people looking for work or even romance. It's when you don't need someone that you're suddenly attractive. Apple doesn't need anyone at all, and right now that's got us a rich environment where enjoying the Mac's superior operating system does not require thought or compromise.

It's what happens next that's going to be interesting.

Money where your mouth is

In all likelihood, Apple is going to move away from Intel to using ARM processors in the Mac. You can expect that it will start soon with the MacBook, and you can bet that it won't happen with the Mac Pro for many years, if at all.

When the first ARM Mac comes out, few buyers in the target market are going to notice because few will need to. Apple is sufficiently distinct from PCs that if anyone really wants Windows, they'll stay on a PC. And Apple is sufficiently powerful now that there will not be another delay for the likes of Adobe.

You can make that case solely on how independent the Mac platform is now, but then there is more. Project Catalyst is going to bring iOS apps to the Mac and if there is anywhere that Apple is beholden to no one, it's with the iPhone and iPad App Store.

In the end, Apple will do what it has always done and make the devices that will sell. It's just that today, Apple is a juggernaut that can decide its own fate and not bother with any compatibility that it doesn't want to.

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