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Apple’s M1 chip is all about platform control

Close the Apple logo on the iPhone

As the dust settles on Apple’s first Arm-based Macs and new M1 chip messages, it’s time to take stock of what this means for one of the industry’s largest computing ecosystems. The transition to arm CPUs is a major shift that will be felt throughout the industry in the coming years. The benefits of energy efficiency for consumers are obviously huge, but the change is likely to be a headache for software developers who need to go back and rebuild their apps.

While Apple appears to have produced some very powerful silicon based on initial reviews and tests from the technology sphere, the need for emulation means we have to take its performance requirements with a pinch of salt. After all, software emulation takes a toll on both performance and power consumption. We will soon be putting the chip and one of Apple’s new laptops through to find out for sure.

But what we can say is that this transition is already proving to be a pretext for greater ecosystem control.

Read more: What is the difference between ARM and x86 CPUs?

Increased reliance on the App Store

Changing the CPU architecture that drives your app ecosystem is no small feat. To help developers with the transition, Apple launched a new Xcode 12 development toolkit. To quote Apple, Xcode produces a binary “disk” for Apple Silicon and one for Intel. Then they pack them together as a single app package that can be shared or sent to the Mac App Store.

This is quite convenient as it means you can just tap install in the store without having to worry about downloading the right version. However, there is a clear push for developers to publish their recompiled apps to Apple’s store. Especially for older apps that may not have considered implementing the store several years ago. Microsoft has a similar solution that uses Visual Studio to produce Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps for the Microsoft Store.

Everyone likes a good app store for the sake of simplicity. However, developers must comply with several rules if they choose to publish on storefronts. Disagreements over terms and conditions gave rise to the lawsuit between Apple and Epic Games earlier in 2020. We should not forget that Apple also takes 30% of all sales on both mobile and Mac storefronts. Microsoft Office launch on Mac App Store was delayed while the two companies found out about app bundling and subscription issues. Historically, Apple’s tight control over in-store ecosystems works against the interests of app developers and users.

Apple takes 30% off both mobile and Mac app store sales.

That said, arm versions of Adobe Photoshop and Blizzard’s World of Warcraft are still installed through their respective launchers. Large companies can certainly exist outside the store. Apple does not force developers to break with self-hosted app installations. At least not yet. However, the lure of in-store exposure can make smaller developers play by Apple’s rules.

In addition, Apple seeks to increase cross-compatibility between MacOS and the far more closed iOS ecosystems. Arm-based iOS applications already run built-in on M1-powered Macs. The future goal is definitely apps that run smoothly on both platforms. However, there is no .dmg or .pkg for iOS, only the App Store, and Apple is not friendly to jailbreaking. Platform developers targeting iOS and Mac OS have no choice but to sign Apple’s T & Cs and pay 30% tax.

Goodbye Boot Camp and Hackintosh

Windows on arm laptops

Apple’s latest hardware announcement also has implications for two instances of niche use of its portable platform Boot Camp and Hackintosh. Both are unlikely to continue working as Apple moves away from x86.

Apple has confirmed that Boot Camp support will not be available for Mac-based Macs. Microsoft only licenses the Arm version of Windows 10 to PC manufacturers. Therefore, there is little prospect of running native Arm Windows on Apple hardware. Instead, those who want to work with both operating systems on a single device will be limited to virtualization. However, it seems that popular virtualization software does not work with Apple’s Rosetta 2 emulation, so it will be necessary to rebuild it.

Apple has confirmed that Boot Camp support will not be available for Mac-based Macs.

The transition has similar implications for users who want to run Mac OS on non-Apple hardware. Mac OS continues to support x86 for now, so Hackintosh builders are safe in the medium term. But the distant picture points to only arm support before the turn of the millennium. Securing compatible hardware is set to become much more difficult if / when Apple phases out Intel support. Of course, we may have many more arm-based PC platforms before then. However, support from the shelf piece will depend on how deeply the company eventually integrates critical Mac OS functionality with its custom hardware.

Moving to Arm was certainly not designed to kill Boot Camp and Hackintosh. It’s just a side effect that also happens to limit consumers’ ability to interact with Apple’s ecosystem further.

Cutting ties with Intel means killing apps

 Intel 10th generation of Ice Lake

Apple’s desire to end its reliance on Intel is no secret. Rumor has it that the company has not been happy with Intel’s chip progress for years, and Apple is paying the costs. It makes economic sense for the Cupertino company to leverage its mobile silicon team for laptops. But moving away from x86 relies on emulating old applications built for that architecture. Apple’s solution is Rosetta 2. However, it is very unlikely that the company intends to keep the emulation for very long. Rather, it is a tool to ease the transition period away from Intel and on its own silicon.

Some kind of deadline, even an unofficial one, encourages developers to actually compile native Arm apps instead of relying on emulation for years. However, older applications at the end of support schedules can never be recompiled. Similarly, Rosetta also cannot interpret a number of Intel CPU extensions, which means that some high-performance apps may not even work on Arm Mac computers.

Using internal processors rather than Intel will increase Apple’s bottom line.

No matter what, the clock is ticking for x86 applications on Mac OS. Apple has the form to kill emulators in a few years. The original Rosetta, released with OS X Tiger for PowerPC emulation during the switch to Intel, was discontinued by OS X Lion. Apple considered the transition complete after only three OS generations, though emulation support ended up extending over six years.

At some point in the not too distant future, old x86 applications will also stop running on Mac. This will be a headache for developers in the medium term. Still, Apple stands to gain with both a firmer grip on hardware and software as well as a healthier bottom line from internal chip sales.

Are there any benefits to platform control?

16 inch MacBook Pro top cover apple logo

Apple abandoned PowerPC in 2006 due to a combination of slower clock speeds, sluggish innovation, and the expense of IBM processors. Today, similar pricing and innovation issues have raised their heads with Intel. Although for consumers, the improved performance per. Watt from moving to arm the biggest benefit.

However, the marginal improvement does not seem to be worth disturbing the entire Mac OS developer and consumer software ecosystem. After all, Intel Macbooks have decent battery life and good performance. It’s also strange that the company did not seem to be considering the increasingly potent chip portfolio at AMD.

The transition to Arm-silicon is as much about platform control as it is about driving innovation.

What Cupertino really wants is more control. First over the development plan and the internal processing of silicon. With internal processors, Apple can drive integrated imaging, machine learning and security features in the direction it wants. Deeper hardware and software integration seems inevitable. At the same time, Apple is providing greater leverage in the software space by switching to the Arm architecture. Tighter integration with its security APIs, app verification, biometrics, credit cards and payment info are all possible with new silicon and software APIs. As a result, developers are not so gently pushed into its app store to ensure product compatibility and make use of cross-platform support with iOS.

We are still some years away from the complete transition to Arm. However, Apple’s endgame is a tightly controlled, unified hardware and software ecosystem across wearables, mobile and PC. Whether this is in the interest of consumers remains to be seen.

Next: Does Google have an answer for Apple’s all-in-one ecosystem?

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