Innovation

Apple Silicon: how it could unleash radically redesigned computers

Apple is about to use a new kind of processor in its Mac. Here's what it could mean.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Apple Silicon is one of the most dramatic changes in Apple's history, but it also kickstarts a new era for computing.

During the company's annual Worldwide Developers' Conference on June 22, streamed online due to the coronavirus outbreak, CEO Tim Cook declared that the Mac would stop using Intel processors and switch to "Apple Silicon" chips.

It means a lot of pain points over the coming years – updating software to run on the new chips, slower performance for older apps, and no more installing Windows directly.

On the other hand, it means a more unified product lineup, likely better performance, Mac support for iPhone apps, and a clearer approach for launching new platforms like augmented reality glasses and perhaps even touchscreen Macs.

Apple Silicon running Linux in virtualization.Apple

While it's unclear how fast these chips are, the first signs are promising. MacRumors reported Monday that Apple's Developer Transition Kit, a $500 computer released after the show to help developers get ready for the switch, has strong initial performance reviews. Geekbench results seem to show Apple's machine beating the Microsoft Surface Pro X, even though the Geekbench app has not yet been optimized to run on Apple's new chips.

Apple Silicon: how we got here – Apple's next switch shows great promise. The first seeds of this transition were planted back in April 2008, when Apple bought chip designer PA Semi in 2008 for $217 million. This, Steve Jobs explained two months later, would help the company design chips for its mobile products. Apple's first self-designed chip, the Apple A4, debuted in April 2010 on the first iPad and two months later on the iPhone 4.

The iPhone 4.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

This move into designing its own chips has been a runaway success. Johny Srouji, senior vice president of hardware technologies, explained during the Mac transition announcement that Apple has dramatically improved performance over time. In the decade since the A4 landed, processor performance on the iPhone has jumped 100-fold. On the iPad side, the latest model offers 1,000 times better graphics performance than the first model. Apple has managed to achieve all this while focusing on squeezing out more performance per watt of power, critical for a mobile device.

This, according to the company itself, is the fourth major transition in its history. Here are the previous three:

  1. The first, in 1994, moved from Motorola 68k chips to the PowerPC architecture. Because the chips essentially spoke a different language, the computer had to rely on a translation technique called "emulation" to run older programs. Emulation would take the instructions from older programs and translate them into instructions understood by PowerPC.
  2. The second, in 2001, moved from the older Mac OS 9 operating system to Mac OS X. This new version was based on the more modern NeXTSTEP operating system. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs founded its developer, NeXT, after he was ousted from Apple. Although the software was very different and required developers to learn new tools, the hardware stayed the same.
  3. The third, in 2005, was from PowerPC to Intel.

Apple Silicon: how the transition will work – The Intel switch set the example for how to transition correctly. An emulation software called "Rosetta" would quietly enable older PowerPC apps to run on the new machines, a name that calls to mind the Rosetta Stone that helped researchers read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Developers could update their software to run on both machines and offer what was called a "Universal Binary." Every Mac in the lineup would make the jump to Intel. Apple gradually phased out PowerPC support: Mac OS X Snow Leopard in 2009 didn't run on PowerPC, and Mac OS X Lion in 2011 dropped Rosetta.

Apple seems to be following a lot of the same ideas for the next switch. "Rosetta 2" will run Intel-based apps, and the "Universal 2" binary format enables apps to run on Intel and Apple chips. The company claimed its entire computer lineup will switch over a two-year period, a timeframe Apple also gave when switching to Intel only to outperform it by a year.

But Apple's switch away from Intel is different. Here, the firm appears to be taking a step away from a convergence process that had been taking place in computers. The earliest home-based computers could vary in terms of which hardware and software they supported, as each manufacturer worked to different designs. The Computer History Museum explains how the IBM personal computer gave rise to a wave of clones in the mid-1980s, where manufacturers could offer machines compatible with IBM PC software. This paved the way for a world where computer companies sold pretty similar machines, running Microsoft Windows on Intel-compatible processors – a combination popularly known as "Wintel."

Apple was a notable holdout from this broader convergence. That changed in 2005 when it started using Intel chips. The move enabled Macs to run Windows directly, meaning users wouldn't even have to use Apple's operating system if they didn't want to. The Mac suddenly became a lot more like a PC. That also enabled new "hackintosh" community efforts to get the now-Intel-powered Mac OS X to run on standard PC hardware.

The new Macs will be a bit more like consumer computers from yesteryear: more bespoke, less compatible, a little more Apple.

Apple Silicon: should you be excited? – Although it sounds like a step toward a less consumer-friendly time, Apple Silicon could be great news for the end-user. The move sets Apple up to play to its strengths, bringing its platforms closer together and enabling successes on one to better support others. Over the past 10 years, the iPhone and iPad have increased performance dramatically. The Developer Transition Kit benchmarks show early signs of strong performance.

Apple's description of its own chips.Apple

It's important to note, aside from the fact that Geekbench has not been optimized for Apple Silicon, that the Developer Transition Kit is a Mac Mini packed with an Apple A12Z chip. This is the same chip used by the current iPad Pro. In an analyst note in June, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo claimed Apple Silicon could offer performance between 50 to 100 percent higher than its Intel predecessor.

Users will also be able to run iPhone and iPad apps on their Mac. Instead of having two separate app catalogs, the Mac will be able to leverage the iPhone's biggest hits and run them on the big screen. This is important because, for developers, the iPhone is a much bigger target – Apple sold around 200 million iPhones last year, around 10 times more than its total Mac sales that year. The Mac will be able to take advantage of big-name iPhone games like Monument Valley, run apps like Gmail, and dip into the expansive app library without having to pester developers to bring their creations to the Mac.

The unification also helps pave the way for some of Apple's most ambitious projects. The company is rumored to be developing an augmented reality headset, which would help ditch the flat screen and merge developers' creations with the real world. A November 2017 report suggested this platform may be called "rOS," similar to how the iPhone's platform is called "iOS."

Rumors at this stage are vague. In June 2020, Bloomberg reported that Apple would release two headsets. The first, to be released in 2022, would use virtual reality screens while giving a view of the real world at the same time. It would offer its own app store, with a focus on games. A second headset, to be released in 2023, would resemble something closer to a pair of glasses.

With Apple taking steps to unify its platforms, it's easy to see how sliding a new platform into the mix could prove far simpler. Instead of starting from scratch again, Apple could continue to leverage existing platforms and expand out further.

Augmented reality glasses could bring Apple's apps to a new form factor.Shutterstock

Apple could also transform the Mac itself into something cooler. Although it pioneered multi-touch screens on the smartphone, Apple has never offered a touchscreen Mac. Besides offering support for iPhone apps on Apple Silicon, the upcoming macOS Big Sur operating system also features larger buttons and a more touch-friendly-looking interface. The Mac will now have touch-designed apps and touch-friendly controls. Software, it seems, is no longer a stumbling block.

A touchscreen MacBook might be cool, but in a series of posts on Twitter, Steve Troughton-Smith suggests that Apple could go even further and create all-new designs.

"The problem with bringing touch to the Mac, traditionally, was twofold: 1) Apple doesn't have any desktop form-factors that are good w/ touch. 2) macOS' software library wasn't touch compatible. 1 was always a design problem, easy to solve. 2 just got solved by iOS apps on macOS."
The Surface Studio 2.Microsoft

One example could be something like the Surface Studio, Microsoft's 28-inch desktop that can lay down flat for artists.

"It's very easy to see a path that leads from here to Macs with touchscreens, but don't presume that means traditional Mac form factors with touch — this opens up opportunities for new shapes & sizes of Mac, designed for touch, but w/ the flexibility of macOS. Surface Studio-style."

The move to Apple Silicon could unlock something even more impressive than just fast processing speeds.

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