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WWDC's Biggest Surprise Might Be an ARM-Based MacBook

Illustration for article titled WWDCs Biggest Surprise Might Be an ARM-Based MacBook
Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)

The question was never if but when, and while some thought it might not happen for another couple years, based on a new report, it appears Apple could announce the first Mac computer powered by an ARM-based chip at WWDC 20 later this month.

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According to Bloomberg, Apple may finally be ready to publicly announce its “Kalamata” initiative which seeks to transition Apple computers away from x86-based Intel CPUs to ARM-based processors like the homegrown A-series chips Apple already uses in iPhones and iPads. And while Bloomberg says that the first Mac computer (most likely a laptop of some sort) to feature an Apple-designed ARM-based processor won’t actually go on sale until sometime in 2021, Apple wants to announce its plans this year to give developers as much time to prepare as possible.

Giving developers lots of lead time is incredibly important because while Apple’s new ARM-based Mac will have a different architecture on the inside, it seems the new device will still run macOS and not iOS. That means much of the software that runs on Macs will need to be tweaked or rebuilt in order to properly utilize the system’s new ARM-based architecture, lest users run into issues with lackluster performance and app comparability like you sometimes get when using a Windows on ARM-based device like the Surface Pro X.

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That said, Apple has been preparing for its upcoming shift for quite a while and has already created a number of tools that should help ease the transition such as Mac Catalyst, which allows users to run apps made for iOS on macOS and helps developers more easily port iOS apps for use on desktop.

By switching over to custom ARM-based processors for its computers, not only would Apple gain greater control over the specs and features of the hardware that goes inside its devices, it would also help create a more unified ecosystem for Apple products in general, which are currently split between x86-based systems running macOS and ARM-based gadgets running iOS.

Furthermore, people have been claiming for years that Apple’s top-end A-series chips have more than enough performance to keep up with the kind of x86 chips used in today’s Windows laptops while offering potentially even better energy efficiency. So in theory, not only would Apple’s new ARM-based Mac be just as fast as a comparable x86 machine, it would have longer battery life too.

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The last time Apple made a change this big was back in 2005 when Apple moved away from PowerPC processors made by IBM to x86 CPUs made by Intel. And while there was a bit of grumbling at first, that change was a major reason Apple saw huge growth in Mac sales over the past decade and a half.

While a lot of this is still up in the air, if Bloomberg’s report is true, WWDC 20 could end up being one of the most important events ever in Apple history. So don’t forget to check back for more coverage on WWDC when the event kicks off online later this month on June 22.

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Know something about Apple’s plans? You can reach me at sam.rutherford@gizmodo.com or reach us anonymously via Gizmodo’s SecureDrop.

Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.

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DISCUSSION

laird
Laird Popkin

Mac OS X has _always_ run on multiple CPUs, from back when it was NeXTSTEP, which ran on x86, SPARC, HP PA RISC, 680x0, then Apple added PowerPC and now of course ARM (AKA iOS, which is the same OS, with a trimmed down GUI layer). And apps have always transparently compiled to all selected CPUs, and the OS automatically installs and runs the appropriate executable code. While Apple doesn’t ship MacOS X for all of those CPUs externally, they’ve continued to make sure that MacOS compiles and runs on a wide range of CPUs in order to maintain portability. So running MacOS X on ARM isn’t a big deal technically, it is mainly business decision to ship full MacOS X rather than just the stripped-down iOS version. And for developers to add support ARM support for their apps is literally clicking one check box and recompiling the apps. Unlike the Windows world, Apple developers are used to fairly frequent updates, because Apple’s strategy is to remove deprecated APIs fairly aggressively so old apps that aren’t updated eventually stop working, while Microsoft’s strategy is to keep old APIs forever. So if Apple announced this change, developers would just add it to their next update, which really is quite easy.

This is very different from when legacy MacOS (before OS X) apps had to be run in a 680x0 emulator to run on a PowerPC, because legacy MacOS didn’t have the multi-architecture support built in that MacOS X has. But anything written for MacOS X runs on any CPU Apple supports, natively, with no emulation.

The reason to go from x86 to ARM isn’t raw performance, it’s power efficiency and cost. ARM processors draw far less power than x86 so they have much longer battery life, and they cost far less, driving down device cost, both of which are important for laptops.