Apple is edging closer to having full control over what powers its products. At WWDC, it confirmed long-standing reports that it's moving away from Intel processors and using its own chips, similar to those that power iPhones and iPads, in MacBooks and Macs. The Apple silicon project is all about creating powerful, energy-efficient processors, which should mean that future MacBooks have far superior battery life than we're accustomed to these days.
The chips will have deep integration with macOS Big Sur. All of the company’s own software can already run as native apps on Apple silicon-based Macs, including demanding tools like Final Cut Pro. Microsoft has also gotten the Office suite to work natively on Apple silicon, and Adobe is doing the same for Creative Cloud apps.
As for iPhone and iPad apps, they’ll be able to run natively on Apple silicon Macs too. You’ll be able to download them from the Mac App Store. Ultimately, the move to Apple silicon should allow the company and third-party developers to more easily build apps that work between its various devices with minimal friction. That initiative got into full swing with Project Catalyst.
Apple expects that developers will update their Mac apps quickly, and they’ll have all the tools they need to do so within Xcode 12. Still, the company wants to make sure that existing apps can run on Apple silicon-based Macs. It’ll do so in part through Rosetta 2, which can translate code as necessary on the fly, and virtualization for Linux. The company unveiled a Developer Transition Kit to help developers to update their apps, and it’ll start shipping units this week. However, they can start building apps for Apple silicon today.
Apple is trying to ensure the move will be as smooth as possible, and it'll take about two years to fully make the migration to silicon. The first Apple silicon systems are likely to ship later this year. Apple is still making Intel-based Macs for now, though. The company said it’ll support Macs with Intel processors for years to come, and it has “exciting new Intel-based Macs in development.”
The last big CPU migration Apple made started in 2006, when it moved from PowerPC processors to Intel x86 processors, and it continued to support PowerPC hardware until 2013. By using its own chips, Apple won’t have to wait for shipments from Intel and it can optimize the processors for whatever it wants Macs to be able to do.
Rumors have been rumbling for years that Apple was preparing to make a switch to its own processors built on the ARM architecture (which is used in iPad and iPhone chips). ARM PC processors haven't consistently matched the processing output of x86-based chips yet, such as Intel's, so it might be a little too soon to expect them to pop up in Mac Pros or other high-end systems. They'll probably be more prevalent in lower-end MacBooks at first, such as the MacBook Air.
Still, ARM-based chips can pack some punch. Benchmarks run on the latest MacBook Air (with an Intel i5 configuration) suggested that its performance wasn't as fast as the 2018 iPad Pro, which uses Apple's own ARM-based A12X. In a multi-core test, that tablet had 73 percent faster performance than the new MacBook Air.
The move will be a blow for Intel. Apple is said to account for between two and four percent of Intel's annual sales, or up to $3 billion given its trailing 12-month revenue that tops $75 billion. So losing Apple as a processor customer wouldn't necessarily be devastating for Intel and nor would that revenue stream disappear in a snap, but it'd definitely sting. “Apple is a customer across several areas of business, and we will continue to support them,” an Intel spokesperson told Engadget.
Intel has long known this migration was coming, since it's reportedly been in the works for quite some time. Nevertheless, the company “remains focused on delivering the most advanced PC experiences and a wide range of technology choices that redefine computing,” the spokesperson said.