If Apple's splitting with Intel's processors for MacBooks, we have questions

Commentary: Apple is reportedly ready to talk about its Arm CPU aspirations at WWDC. What are the implications?

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
4 min read

Arm-based chips, which combine high- and low-power cores for more efficient operation, and which predominate in phones, are traditionally best suited to devices where battery life is paramount. Could we see an ultrathin, ultralight clamshell from Apple similar to an iPad Pro with keyboard?

Scott Stein/CNET

The big buzz right now, at least in the tech community, is that Apple may be ready to discuss shifting the brains of its Mac systems -- away from CPU heavyweight Intel to under its own proprietary wing -- with its developer community at WWDC on June 22. The will it/won't it (again) speculation about such a move has been around for quite a while, but dropping the news on developers is the first public step to confirming it's a reality and making it happen. Switching to new microarchitecture is a big step that can take years to develop and debug before it even reaches the desks of software developers, then another six months to a year -- at least -- to bring to market.

Apple provides its own Arm-based A-series Bionic chips for iPhones and iPads, and its T1 and T2 security chips are also based on Arm. So the idea isn't as much of a stretch as previous Apple moves, such as when Apple switched from the Motorola 68000 to the IBM PowerPC or when it began transitioning from that RISC platform to Intel x86 in 2005. And the software tools for making the change should be much better now than they were then. But it took about six years to complete that switch; Apple didn't discontinue support for it until OS X 10.7 Lion and PowerPC systems weren't deemed "obsolete" until 2013. 

Some of Apple's moves seem to start paving the way for a change to a new platform, such as finalizing the deprecation of 32-bit applications and the introduction of Catalyst in MacOS Catalina (for running iOS apps on MacOS), though a pending processor switch likely wasn't the driving force behind them.

Even though it might not take the same eight years to complete a changeover, we'll still be living in a more mixed environment for a while than we are now: Apple's three operating systems, iOS, iPadOS and MacOS, could conceivably turn into four, or at least three and a half. Plus, there's bound to be confusion among buyers, no matter how carefully Apple frames its message.

Then there's the worry that Apple's move to this new processor may be as lackluster as the attempts we've seen to create Windows laptops running on the Qualcomm-equivalent platform. Since Apple doesn't have to mix and match components with an operating system that weren't designed for it, I give it a better chance of success. But it still may not be fast enough to be worth the tradeoff of performance for a bit more battery life.

When Tim Cook takes the virtual stage on June 22, if he does break the big news, here are the questions we hope we'll get answers to.

Which Macs will get it and when?

Right now, the rumor mill pegs product rollouts for mid-2021. It's almost a given that it will initially appear in MacBooks; the big appeal of the hybrid-core, system-on-chip approach (aside from allowing Apple to split from Intel's roadmap) is battery savings and a cellular-modem friendly design. It would make sense to debut it in an ultra-ultraportable -- something lighter than a MacBook Air, for instance -- though there's been speculation that it would more likely be a return of the 12-inch MacBook. What about a Mac Mini-esque system? 

As to whether it will make it as high as the MacBook Pro, much less the iMacs or Mac Pro , I think that might require a rejiggering of system architecture. Therefore it would be further out -- like 2022 or later.

Will it change the Mac in some fundamental way?

Will these systems fundamentally be Macs, but with Arm, or a different beast entirely, with a different flavor of Mac OS? When Apple moved to Intel it took the opportunity to overhaul its product line. That's when the MacBook evolved from the PowerBook and the PowerMac turned into the Mac Pro. Could it pave the way for (gasp!) touchscreen MacBooks? Remember, the A11 and later chips have Apple's neural engine in them. That kind of OS-integrated co-processing may allow Apple to open up more sophisticated uses for the systems that could redefine how they look and operate.

Up close and personal with the new 16-inch MacBook Pro

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What are Apple's targets for performance and features?

How will they differ -- if at all -- from the current A series? How well does it scale? Will it be relegated to just low-power, long-lived systems or can Apple address the need for discrete GPUs, support for more memory, connections (like Thunderbolt 3, on which Apple relies heavily) and other staples of more powerful systems. 

What are the implications for software compatibility and development?

How hard will it be for software creators to migrate their applications? If it's a major OS rewrite, for example accommodating touchscreens, will they even use the same OS interfaces? Custom-built or old 32-bit applications that couldn't be migrated left some users stuck on the previous generation of the operating system. Will there be a similar discontinuity for some applications? Compatibility is a big sticking point in the Windows Arm-based laptops, and it's possible that Apple would fork MacOS with an even more locked down version. Or will it go the other way, using a Catalyst-like emulator experience to run MacOS applications?

And one bonus question: Did Apple even consider switching to AMD processors ? That would still have left it beholden to another company's development priorities and roadmap, but there's something to be said for having a partner to carry some of the load. The two have a tight working relationship for graphics processors, so there must have been some discussion at some point.

We're eagerly anticipating -- OK, hoping for -- news from WWDC that goes beyond the usual iPhone rumors or operating system refreshes.