Last updated: 3 weeks ago
It's time for another chipset transition for the Mac, this time from Intel to ARM. The rumors continue to escalate around this potential future for the Mac line, and may see software and hardware announcements soon. An ARM Mac is inevitable, but the question is, when?
● Apple designed chipset
● New ARM friendly macOS
● Based on existing A-series processors
● Software already exists
● Control over entire stack
● Leave legacy software behind
● Transition likely smoothed by existing hardware
Software shifts and hardware transitions are nothing new to Apple, and we are about to see another huge shift in how they approach consumer technology. Until now, the Mac has relied on innovation and development from Intel to move forward, but with the ARM Mac, Apple will have total control.
Rumors have circulated for a few years now about the potential of an ARM-based Mac. With the introduction of the iPad Pro and continued year-over-year improvements to Apple’s A-series chipsets, an ARM Mac feels almost inevitable.
Why an ARM Mac needs to happen
The past decade has been bumpy for Mac users. Apple has had its own host of issues with designs they introduced, like the butterfly keyboard and cylindrical Mac Pro, but much of what has been holding back the Mac falls on Intel.
Since 2015 Intel has seen marginal improvements in their chipset capabilities and relied upon increased clock speeds and more demands on cooling than actual processor gains. This left Apple with little room to move when it came to innovating on the Mac platform.
Apple even had to implement custom silicon in their Macs to run in tandem with the Intel processors, thus taking some of the load off of the Intel processes.
If Apple controlled the development of all the hardware and software in Mac, just as it has with the iPhone and iPad, then we would see much greater leaps in performance over time. This would allow more room for innovations in design and add in additional use cases and hardware.
ARM Mac software
Since the release of macOS Catalina, we have seen a slow trickle of Mac Catalyst apps. These are apps designed for iPad that have been formatted to work on Macs with macOS system architecture and Intel chipsets.
While Catalyst has yet to prove a great hit with developers, it lays the groundwork necessary for them to start programming iPad apps as if they were running in a macOS environment.
It is safe to assume that Mac Catalyst developed iPad apps will be easily transitioned, if not directly portable, to an ARM Mac. Catalyst also shows that Apple is capable and learning about making it easy to implement developer tools for transitions between platforms.
Do not be surprised if we see a “Mac Catalyst ARM edition” of some kind very soon.
Perhaps the most crucial development surrounding software for the ARM Mac is SwiftUI. This new language is universal and can easily be used for any Apple Platform during development.
An even faster transition
In 2005, late Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced that the Mac would transition to Intel from PowerPC over a year starting in 2006. The entire Mac line transitioned to Intel processors in 2006, first ones in January, and the last in August. Mac OS X Snow Leopard launched in 2009 as Intel only.
To move the entirety of the Mac platform for millions of users, minuscule by today's user base, to a new system architecture with minimal issues was an incredible feat. It is impossible to determine the speed at which Apple will move Mac to ARM, but for everyday users, the transition will likely be invisible.
Today's ARM chipsets can already handle most tasks an average user performs, and not having compatibility with Windows shouldn’t be an issue in a world where most data is in the cloud anyway. We do not know what kind of performance an Apple-designed “desktop-class” ARM chipset will produce, but it may be a few generations before the Mac Pro can kick Intel entirely. Lesser Macs meant for consumers and professionals who are not mapping star systems or making a Pixar movie will likely be just fine with ARM.
Apple tends to be obsessive about consistency across a platform. It is hard to imagine Apple having their entire product line from iPod to iMac running on ARM and having one single Mac on Intel. This would lead to software compatibility issues and development forks in professional-grade tools.
Even with the entire line shifting to ARM, leaving the Mac Pro as is during the transition will work fine. When you do see a Mac Pro with Apple ARM inside, expect macOS to deprecate Intel Macs soon after.
What consumers need to know
Unless you are a professional who needs to run Windows and macOS on the same machine, or have very specific software that won't update to the new ARM architecture for a few years, you won't even notice this is happening. The biggest change for more casual users will be the lockdown of compatible software.
All of the software a user downloads from the web assumes they are working on a Mac or PC running Intel. This means when you buy an ARM Mac, you will not be downloading any of that software, which might be frustrating for users. iPad and iPhone cannot download apps from the web, and the same could easily occur for the ARM Mac.
Since macOS has a bit more control over software installation, Apple will likely enable settings for users to install compatible applications from the web. It will be up to third-party developers to make their software compatible, however, and could mean a minimal third-party software for some time after launch.
If Apple is serious about an ARM transition, it will have to be behind developers all the way, and incentivize them to develop apps quickly.
If Apple restricts Mac software to the Mac App Store or makes it very hard to install from anywhere else, developers will need to offer their apps through official Apple channels. Otherwise, Apple could alienate popular developers and thus lose customers to Windows because of a lack of compatible software.
Another issue that is easily solved with licensing is Thunderbolt. Intel owns the rights to Thunderbolt and includes the necessary I/O for the ports in the Intel chipsets. Unless Apple comes up with its own version of Thunderbolt without violating patents, Apple will likely still be in business with Intel in some capacity.
When will ARM Macs ship?
Rumors point to the fall of 2020 for the first ARM Mac. The now-defunct 12-inch MacBook would make the perfect candidate for the first Mac with Apple ARM inside. Some speculate a return to the “iBook” branding for such a device since it would essentially be a MacBook running on iPad chipsets.
Reputable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo suggests a spring 2021 launch is more likely, repeatedly. Whichever is true, WWDC 2020 is the last chance for Apple to talk directly to developers about such a transition before it occurs, if it occurs before next year's WWDC.
To complicate things even further, WWDC will be held remotely via the internet in 2020 amid coronavirus concerns, making the transition announcement somewhat cumbersome as no developers will be physically present.
A developer transition kit is needed, and software too, because the hardware cannot launch without any software. It is likely that an official announcement from Apple is not far off. One Twitter leaker suggests there is a 12-inch device in development at this moment, and another leaker has since followed up stating the 12-inch ARM MacBook could be the first such product.
Another rumor corroborated the existence of a device, suggesting an ARM Mac laptop of some kind would be seen sometime in 2021. This device would host a version of the upcoming A14 chipset that is slated for the "iPhone 12."
Just before WWDC, Kuo released another note stating there would be an ARM MacBook by the end of 2020, with a 24-inch ARM iMac to follow.