Apple may be preparing to update the 13-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro machines to Intel’s tenth-generation processors, but its longstanding project to bring ARM power to its MacOS platform gathers pace, with reports today that a release in 2021 is on the cards.
Update 25 April: One of the biggest obstacles facing an ARM powered MacBook will be third-party application support, so it’s unlikely that Apple can make the jump from Intel to ARM in a single move. That’s unlikely to be the plan.
Roland Moore-Colyer at Tom’s Guide has been speaking to a number of analysts (including Geoff Blaber of CCS Insight, and Avi Greengart of Techspotential) on the nature of an ARM based MacBook.
The easiest way in to the market for the laptops is to take on Google’s Chromebooks:
As it stands, Chromebooks are popular among students but are generally rather basic, with more premium models being expensive and using Intel CPUs. And Chrome OS simply isn’t as flexible or flush with apps as macOS or Windows 10.
…All this means there’s a gap in the market for Apple to make a low-powered yet well-made and keenly priced laptop to offer more flexibility than Chromebooks and bypass the shortcomings of Windows 10 on ARM; something Blaber says Apple can learn from.
Apple would ensure that its own core apps would run on ARM, including iWork, its media apps, and the all important browser. That there is enough to take on Chrome OS with a lightweight MacBook running the new chipset.
A number of chips are under development. The first is based on the A14 system on chip that will be fitted to the iPhone 12 smartphone family and is expected to be the first to be launched. A second-generation chip, potentially with extra commuting power for more demanding applications, is also under way.
The reporting comes from Mark Gurman, Debby Wu, and Ian King at Bloomberg:
Apple is preparing to release at least one Mac with its own chip next year, according to the people. But the initiative to develop multiple chips, codenamed Kalamata, suggests the company will transition more of its Mac lineup away from current supplier Intel Corp.
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., Apple’s partner for iPhone and iPad processors, will build the new Mac chips, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private product plans. The components will be based on a 5-nanometer production technique, the same size Apple will use in the next iPhones and iPad Pros, one of the people said. An Apple spokesman declined to comment, as did Intel and TSMC.
This is not a quick or easy project, but there are some advantages if the move is successful.
Probably the biggest one will be reducing Intel’s influence on Apple’s product line. The pace of Intel’s updates is not on an annual schedule, which leaves the Mac family of laptops and desktops waiting on the new chips from Intel, rather than fitting into Apple’s regimented yearly cycle seen in the iPhone and iPad platforms.
That sits on top of having Intel as an external point of failure. Apple has no issue with iPhone processors, as witnessed by the regular annual updates to the Axx silicon. But there have been multiple issues with sourcing 5G modems from external suppliers. When Intel stopped its 5G efforts, that left Apple beholden to Qualcomm for the next few years.
(In the meantime, Apple bought Intel’s 5G modem division to bring it in-house, with the view to using Qualcomm as a stop-gap).
A unified approach around the Axx architecture for iOS, iPadOS, and MacOS offers a number of benefits of scale. Resources can be focused and better managed, Apple can choose its own path and try to shape the market to its own desire, and MacOS machines could switch to a regular update cycle, potentially annually for the lower end laptops, bi-annually for the Pro laptops, and every three years for the desktop power-houses.
It’s possible to argue that Apple already has an ARM-based laptop. Okay the screen and the keyboard detach from each other, but the iPad Pro and Magic keyboard combination is being heavily pushed by Apple into the ‘your next computer’ space.
The key difference with an ‘iPadOS laptop’ and MacOS machine is that Apple has far more control over the iPadOS platform, what applications can run on it, and can take a rake over any and all payments through the platform as it sees fit.
The move to ARM will bring with it the same headaches faced by any manufacturer changing architecture; developers will be dealing with a new environment, and applications will need recompiled or recoded for the new chips.
New app development will be in a better situation with Apple. There is already a wealth of experience in the ecosystem thanks to the use of ARM on the iPhone and iPad. That will make a transition from Intel to ARM smoother. There is an additional benefit that coders who have stayed with iOS and not made the jump to MacOS may now be tempted over.
The ‘hard break’ from Intel to ARM means that existing applications will not be able to run natively on the new MacBook machines. Apple could run an emulation layer to allow a virtual Intel machine, but I wonder if Tim Cook and his team would take a more ruthless approach and say that there will be no hand-holding – if developers want apps to run on the new machines then they will need to code native ARM apps.
After all, Cook took the same approach when MacOS Catalina removed 32-bit support… it was the 64-bit way or the highway.
Previous reports suggested a launch date of late 2020 or early 2021. Given the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Apple is widely believed to be focusing on keeping the iPhone 12 on schedule, which will see other products slip back. With the challenges of the Intel to ARM switch, it makes sense for these Mac machines to arrive late.