Yesterday was the Apple Silicon event, where they unveiled their new Apple M1 Chip as well as the new Macbook Air, Macbook Pro and Mac Mini with that chip. In this article I want to talk about why I think that the transition to ARM processors in Apples computer lineup is not only an important step for Apple, but rather a seismic shift to the entire industry and will be, looking back from the future, a breaking point in computing history.
A short history of ARM desktops
This is not the first time a company tried to put an ARM based processor in a computer. For example, back in 2018 HP unveiled their Envy x2 with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 and Windows 10 ARM.
It promised amazing battery life, great performance and instant on functionality. It was able to deliver on the battery front, but performance was, sadly, pretty bad. But this wasn't even really the fault of the laptop. Sure the chip wasn't the newest one at the time, but it was a capable mobile processor.
The issue here is two-fold. One one side, there aren't many desktop class applications that are able to run on the ARM architecture. To mitigate that issue, Windows ARM has an emulation layer, that makes it possible to run Win32 apps on the device. But a) the emulation is still limited to 32-bit applications (which are becoming less and less important every year) and b) the performance of emulated applications is pretty bad (Source: HP Envy x3 review).
On the other hand, developers aren't willing to adapt their applications to run on ARM processors, as they are only a tiny fraction of the entire market and thus not yet worth the extra development effort.
Note: There are also more recent ARM laptops available, like the Surface Pro lineup, that are more powerful but still suffer from the same software adoption problem.
How Apples approach is different
Now, two years later, Apple comes along with their interpretation on what an ARM computer means.
They have purpose built their M1 chip for this application, based on their already amazingly fast A14 Bionic, and optimized the macOS Big Sur operating system around it. They have thus, in their words, taken advantage of every bit of performance that they can (Source: Apple M1). I believe that statement as they have proven to be good at exactly that with their iPhones and iPads line of products.
But what about applications? Even the Mac landscape is not full of ARM based applications, right? Correct. But as explained above, that is mostly due to the fact that until now, there was just no really big market of ARM computers and thus large companies had no incentive to develop and optimize their applications for ARM.
And exactly that has now changed. Apple has often times in history been a pioneer of new developments by simply implementing them in lines of products that have a huge market share and thus pushing developers and other companies to adapt. With how popular Macs are, developers now have to develop for ARM or else their software will not be able run on the newest Mac models by 2022, when Apple want's to have transitioned their entire lineup of Macs to ARM.
That statement was not entirely correct, as Apple also offers an emulation layer with Rosetta 2. I don't yet now how well it perform in real world applications and thus can not judge how good it is. I expect it to be sufficiently quick to mitigate pain points of the transition phase, but it is by no means a permanent solution and developers know that.
What the future holds
Big software companies will be bringing their software to the new Macs with ARM architecture, as they can't justify to miss out. And that is exactly what ARM based desktops have been in need of.
This is not only an important move for Apple, but also allows other companies to start developing their own range of ARM based desktops and pull even with, or maybe even ahead of, Apple. Someone had to break the seal on ARM based desktops, not just with a single device, but with an entire lineup and that is happening right now. My prediction is that we will see a huge adoption of the ARM architecture in the desktop and especially the laptop market, as there its advantages like better power efficiency and thus better battery life and less thermal output are the most important.
I am excited what the next few years of product and application development have to offer and even though I am not a Mac person, I am now more tempted than ever, to give one a try.