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Apple's new Arm-based Macs will run iPhone, iPad apps

Apple is bringing its own silicon to its computers, making them more power efficient and more like the company's mobile devices.

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- 05:24
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Apple plans to use its own processors in its future Macs, a move CEO Tim Cook called "historic."

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple's upcoming Macs that use its own processors will immediately have a huge library of software: the millions of iPhone and iPad apps in the App Store. 

Apple on Monday, at its first digital Worldwide Developers Conference, said its new Macs will be able to "directly" run apps built for the tech giant's phones and tablets. The App Store for the 13-year-old iPhone has about 2 million apps, far higher than the number of programs made specifically for the Mac.

"Starting day one, users can download these apps right from the Mac App Store, and most apps will just work with no changes from the developer," Craig Federighi, Apple's head of software, said during the digital press conference. "The range of apps that users will be able to run on these new Macs is truly unprecedented."

The company detailed the changes in a rapid-fire press conference Monday, with Apple executives talking to cameras broadcasting the presentation around the globe. The keynote featured shots from around Apple's Steve Jobs Theater and a "secret" lab, with executives isolated from each other to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The biggest news of the day was Apple's plan to move away from Intel chips in its computers in favor of its own Arm-based processors. Apple already designs the silicon that runs its iPhones and iPads, which lets it better customize its products for its specific needs. Using its own processors also differentiates Apple's devices from those sold by its rivals. Apple said Monday that using its own silicon in its Macs will make them more power efficient.

"The first thing this will do is give the Mac a whole new level of performance," said Johny Srouji, senior vice president of hardware technologies. He also promised better power management for long battery life technology from Apple's mobile chips along with graphics, artificial intelligence and secure enclave hardware security hardware.

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Along with iPhone and iPad apps, all of Apple's native MacOS apps will work on its new Arm-based Macs. And it's working with third-party developers like Microsoft and Adobe to tweak their software for the new machines. 

Apple's annual developer convention, called WWDC for short, is where the company unveils its updates for its software and services, showing off upcoming features that developers will be able to build into their apps. Apple may be best known for its devices, but the seamless integration of its hardware with its software is what sets it apart from rivals. Apple's ability to control every aspect of its products -- something that began when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak co-founded the company in 1976 -- has been key in making it one of the most powerful companies in tech. This year's WWDC is the company's 31st.

Apple typically hosts several thousand developers at its Northern California base, with the conference last year taking place in San Jose. But this year's WWDC comes as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. As of Monday, COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has infected more than 9 million people around the globe. Tens of millions of Americans have filed for unemployment as businesses closed and governments directed their citizens to stay at home. While some parts of the world and US are reopening, life is far from normal, making it risky to gather thousands of developers in one location.

Apple-designed silicon

Apple in mid-March said WWDC would be all-digital this year, as will other gatherings like the Collision conference and Microsoft's Build confab. Companies like Google and Facebook opted to scrap their developer conferences this year. 

WWDC comes as Apple focuses more on its software and services. There's iOS, MacOS for its computers, tvOS for Apple TV and watchOS for the Apple Watch. And last year, Apple split its mobile software, keeping iOS for phones and introducing iPad OS with features tweaked for Apple's tablets. When it comes to services, the company offers Apple TV Plus, Apple Pay, Apple Music, the App Store, iCloud, HomeKit and various other apps and services. It's critical that Apple make a strong impression at WWDC with the next versions of its software. 

Earlier Monday, Apple unveiled its newest iPhone software. iOS 14 includes features like a redesigned home screen, called App Library; updated widgets to let you decide the size and location of the boxes that contain information like the weather; and new Apple Memoji with face coverings and more age options. Other tweaks included MessagesSiri, Apple's voice assistant; and CarPlay.

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When it comes to the new Macs, Apple said they'll be available in the fourth quarter. Apple still will support its Intel-based Macs "for years to come," it said. All of the company's current computers use chips from Intel. 

Intel in a statement said it'll continue to support Apple. "Intel remains focused on delivering the most advanced PC experiences and a wide range of technology choices that redefine computing," the company said. "We believe Intel-powered PCs -- like those based on our forthcoming Tiger Lake mobile platform -- provide global customers the best experience in the areas they value most, as well as the most open platform for developers, both today and into the future.

Apple will make Arm-based Macs available for developers this week. A new Mac Mini desktop will be available running an A12Z processor for developers to start changing over their apps to run on the new processors. 

"Apple has made enormous investments in Arm chip design and it's logical that it extends that capability beyond the iPhone and iPad," CCS Insight analyst Geoff Blaber said. "Its motivations for doing so include reducing its dependence on Intel, maximizing its silicon investment, boosting performance, and giving itself more flexibility and agility when it comes to future products."

CNET's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.