Apple’s M1 chip is all about platform control

Close up of Apple logo on iPhone

With the dust settling on Apple’s first Arm-based Macs and announcements of new M1 chips, it’s time to take stock of what this means for one of the industry’s largest computing ecosystems. The transition to Arm processors is a major change that will be felt in the industry in the years to come. The energy efficiency benefits for consumers are clearly significant, but the change risks being a headache for software developers who need to go back and rebuild their applications.

While Apple appears to have produced some very potent silicon based on initial ratings and testing in the tech sphere, the need for emulation means we should take its performance with a pinch of salt. After all, software emulation has an impact on performance and power consumption. We will be putting the chip and one of Apple’s new laptops to the test very soon to find out for sure.

However, what we can say is that this transition is already proving to be a pretext for better control of ecosystems.

Read more: What is the difference between Arm and x86 processors?

Growing addiction to the App Store

Changing the processor architecture that powers your application ecosystem is no easy task. To help developers make the switch, Apple has released a new set of Xcode 12 developer tools. To quote Apple, Xcode produces a binary “slice” for Apple Silicon and one for Intel. It then consolidates them into one set of apps to share or submit to the Mac App Store.

This is quite convenient, as it means that you can just click install from the store without having to worry about downloading the correct version. However, the developers clearly want to release their recompiled apps to the Apple store. Especially for older applications that may not have considered in-store deployment several years ago. Microsoft offers a similar solution using Visual Studio to produce Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps for the Microsoft Store.

Everyone loves a good app store for the sake of simplicity. However, developers have to follow more rules if they choose to post to storefronts. The disagreements over the T & Cs gave rise to the lawsuit between Apple and Epic Games earlier in 2020. It should not be forgotten that Apple also takes 30% of all sales on mobile and Mac storefronts. The launch of Microsoft Office on the Mac App Store was delayed as the two companies learned about app bundling and subscription issues. Historically, Apple’s tight control over its store ecosystems has worked against the interests of app developers and users.

Apple takes 30% of sales from mobile and Mac app stores.

That said, the Arm versions of Adobe Photoshop and Blizzard’s World of Warcraft are still installed through their respective launchers. Large businesses can certainly exist outside of the store. Apple isn’t forcing developers to break away from self-hosted app installations. At least not yet. However, the allure of in-store display may make small developers stick to Apple’s rules.

In addition, Apple is looking to increase cross-compatibility between its MacOS and much more closed iOS ecosystems. Arm-based iOS apps already work natively on Macs with M1. The future goal is certainly for the apps to work seamlessly on both platforms. However, there is no .dmg or .pkg for iOS, only the App Store and Apple is not jailbreaking friendly. Cross-platform developers targeting iOS and Mac OS will have no choice but to sign Apple’s terms and conditions and pay the 30% tax.

Goodbye Boot Camp and Hackintosh

Windows on Arm laptops

Apple’s latest hardware announcement also has implications for two niche use cases of its laptop platform. Boot Camp and Hackintosh. Both are unlikely to continue working as Apple quits x86.

Apple has confirmed that Boot Camp support will not come to Arm-based Macs. Microsoft only licenses the Arm version of Windows 10 to PC manufacturers. Therefore, there is little chance of running Native Windows Arm on Apple hardware. Instead, those looking to work with both operating systems on a single device will be limited to virtualization. However, it looks like popular virtualization software won’t work with Apple’s Rosetta 2 emulation, so it will have to be completely rebuilt.

Apple has confirmed that Boot Camp support does not apply to Arm-based Macs.

The transition has similar implications for users looking to run Mac OS on non-Apple hardware. Mac OS continues to support x86 for the time being, so Hackintosh manufacturers are safe in the medium term. But the distant picture indicates only armed support before the turn of the decade. Securing compatible hardware will become much more difficult if / when Apple phased out Intel support. Of course, we could have a lot more Arm-based PC platforms by then. However, support for standard parts will depend on how well the company ultimately integrates critical Mac OS functionality into its custom hardware.

The switch to Arm certainly wasn’t designed to kill Boot Camp and Hackintosh. It’s just a side effect that also further limits the options for consumers to interact with Apple’s ecosystem.

Cutting ties with Intel means killing applications

10th Generation Intel Ice Lake

Apple’s desire to end its dependence on Intel is no secret. Rumors suggest the company hasn’t been happy with Intel’s chip progress for years, and Apple is paying the cost. It makes economic sense for the Cupertino company to take advantage of its mobile silicon team for laptops. But moving away from x86 relies on emulating older applications designed for this architecture. Apple’s solution is Rosetta 2. However, it is highly unlikely that the company intends to maintain emulation for very long. Rather, it is a tool to ease the period of transition away from Intel and towards its own silicon.

Some sort of deadline, even an unofficial one, encourages developers to build native Arm apps rather than relying on emulation for years to come. However, old apps at the end of support roadmaps may never be recompiled. Likewise, Rosetta also cannot interpret a number of Intel processor extensions, which means that some high-performance applications may not even work on Mac Arms.

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

Either way, the clock is ticking for x86 apps on Mac OS. Apple is in the form to kill emulators in just a few years. The original Rosetta, released with OS X Tiger for PowerPC emulation when switching to Intel, was discontinued by OS X Lion. Apple considered the transition complete after just three generations of operating systems, although support for emulation lasted six years.

At some point in the not too distant future, older x86 apps will also stop working on Macs. It will be a headache for developers in the medium term. Still, Apple has everything to gain with both a firmer grip on hardware and software, as well as healthier results from internal chip sales.

Are there any advantages to controlling the platform?

16-inch MacBook Pro Top Cover Apple Logo

Apple discontinued PowerPC in 2006 due to a combination of slower clock speeds, slow innovation, and the cost of IBM’s processors. Today, similar pricing and innovation issues have arisen with Intel. Although for consumers, the improved performance per watt of switching to Arm is the primary benefit.

However, this marginal improvement hardly seems worth the trouble of upsetting the entire Mac OS developer and consumer software ecosystem. Intel Macbooks have decent battery life and excellent performance after all. It’s also odd that the company doesn’t seem to have considered AMD’s increasingly powerful chip portfolio.

The switch to Silicon Arm is as much about platform control as it is about innovation.

What Cupertino really wants more control. First of all on the development roadmap and the inner workings of its silicon. With internal processors, Apple can drive built-in imaging, machine learning, and security functions in any direction you want. Further integration of hardware and software seems inevitable. At the same time, the move to the Arm architecture gives Apple greater influence in the software space. Tighter integration with its security APIs, application verification, biometrics, credit cards and payment information is possible with the new silicon and software APIs. As a result, developers aren’t so nicely pushed into its app store to ensure product compatibility and use cross-platform support with iOS.

We are still a few years away from the full transition to Arm. However, Apple’s end game is a tightly controlled, unified hardware and software ecosystem across portable devices, mobiles, and PCs. Whether this is in the best interests of consumers remains to be seen.

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

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