Mac transition to Apple silicon
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The Mac transition to Apple silicon is the process of changing the central processing units (CPUs) of Apple Inc.'s line of Mac computers from Intel's x86-64 processors to Apple-designed processors that use the ARM64 architecture. CEO Tim Cook announced a "two-year transition plan" in his WWDC keynote address on June 22, 2020, and the first Macs with Apple-designed processors were released that November.
This is the third time Apple has switched the Macintosh to a new instruction set architecture. The first was from the Motorola 68000 series to PowerPC chips in 1994 and the second from PowerPC to Intel processors using the x86 architecture in 2005-2006.
Since 2006, Apple has used Intel processors in Macintosh computers. Apple first used the ARM architecture in 1993 in its Newton personal digital assistant, followed by the iPod in 2001 and the iPhone in 2007. Apple has designed its own custom ARM chips since 2009, which it has officially deployed since 2010 in its iPhone, iPad, iPod, Apple TV and Apple Watch product lines, as well as AirPods, Beats and HomePod. Between October 2016 and August 2020, Intel-based Macs with Apple-designed ARM co-processors were released.
In the 2010s, media reports documented Apple's frustrations and challenges with the pace and quality of Intel's technology development. Apple reportedly had trouble with Intel modems for iPhones in 2017 due to technical issues and missed deadlines. Meanwhile, a 2018 report suggested that Intel chip issues prompted a redesign of the MacBook. In 2019, Apple blamed Intel processor shortages for a decline in Mac sales. In June 2020, former Intel principal engineer François Piednoël said Intel's "abnormally bad" quality assurance in its Skylake processors, making Apple "the number one filer of problems in the architecture", helped Apple decide to migrate. Intel CTO Mike Mayberry countered that quality assurance problems may arise at large scale from any CPU vendor.
Early involvement with ARM
In 1983, Acorn Computers started working on a project to design its own CPU architecture and instructions set, called the Acorn RISC Machine (ARM). In 1985, Apple's Advanced Technology Group worked with Acorn to create an experimental prototype, code-named Mobius, to replace the Apple ][, using a modified ARM processor. The project was cancelled but Apple again partnered with Acorn when it needed a low-power, efficient processor for its future Newton PDA. In 1990, a new joint-venture was created between Acorn, Apple and VLSI Technology with the goal of pursuing the development of the ARM processor. The company was named Advanced RISC Machines Ltd, becoming the new meaning of the ARM acronym. Apple held a 43% stake in the company, which was reduced to 14.8% in 1999.
Transition from PowerPC to Intel
Since Apple's 2005–2006 transition to Intel processors, all Macintosh computers, until the transition to Apple silicon, have used Intel's x86 CPU architecture. During his 2005 WWDC keynote address, Steve Jobs noted that Intel-based processors outperformed IBM's PowerPC processors in terms of energy consumption, and that if Apple continued to rely on PowerPC technology, it would be unable to build the future Macs it envisioned, including higher-performance workstation computers and advanced laptops for a rapidly growing laptop market: "As we look ahead, we can envision some amazing products we want to build ... And we don't know how to build them with the future PowerPC roadmap."
By June 2006, only Apple's high-end desktop computer and server product were still using PowerPC processors. The hardware transition was completed when Intel-based Mac Pros and Xserve computers were announced in August 2006 and shipped by the end of the year.
Apple ceased support for booting on PowerPC as of Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard" in August 2009, three years after the transition was complete. Support for PowerPC applications via Rosetta was dropped from macOS in 10.7 "Lion" in July 2011, five years after the transition was complete.
In 2008, Apple bought processor company P.A. Semi for US$278 million. At the time, it was reported that Apple bought P.A. Semi for its intellectual property and engineering talent. CEO Steve Jobs later claimed that P.A. Semi would develop system-on-chips for Apple's iPods and iPhones. Following the acquisition, Apple signed a rare "Architecture licence" with ARM, allowing the company to design its own core, using the ARM instruction set. The first Apple-designed chip was the A4, released in 2010, which debuted in the first-generation iPad, then in the iPhone 4. Apple subsequently released a number of products with its own processors.
Rumors of Apple shifting Macintosh to custom-designed ARM processors began circulating in 2011, when SemiAccurate predicted it would happen by mid-2013. In 2014, MacRumors reported that Apple was testing an ARM-based Mac prototype with a large Magic Trackpad. In 2018, Bloomberg reported that Apple was planning to use its own chips based on the ARM architecture beginning in 2020.
Apple announced its plans to shift the Macintosh platform to Apple silicon in a series of WWDC presentations in June 2020. The entire transition of the Macintosh product line is expected to take "about two years", with the first ARM-based Macs released by the end of 2020. Similar language was used during Apple's 2005–2006 transition to Intel, which actually took about one year.
All Apple apps included with macOS Big Sur release are compatible with x86-64 and ARM architectures. Many third-party apps are similarly being made dual-platform, including prominent software packages such as Adobe Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, and Microsoft Word.
To enable x86-native software to run on new ARM-based Macs, Rosetta 2 dynamic binary translation software is transparently embedded in macOS Big Sur. Universal binary 2 enables application developers to support both x86-64 and ARM64.
To allow developers to prepare their software for a smooth user experience on ARM-based Macs, they were given the option to sign up for a one year membership to the Universal App Quick Start Program which provided a couple of benefits. One of which was a license to use a Developer Transition Kit (DTK), temporarily made available by Apple. This Developer Transition Kit uses the A12Z chip, originally used in the iPad Pro (4th generation), housed inside a Mac Mini case. In an interview shortly after the announcement of the transition, Apple senior vice president of Software Engineering Craig Federighi praised the performance of the DTK Apple's prototype ARM-based Mac.
The transition may allow Apple to cut component costs because it will no longer need to externally acquire expensive CPUs due to vertical integration.
In June 2020, tech analyst Daniel Newman estimated that Apple accounts for some $1.5 billion to $3.0 billion (about 2% to 4%) of Intel's annual revenue, and only 6.9–12% of the PC market in the United States of America and 7% globally. Longer-term speculation holds that the transition could prompt other PC makers to reevaluate their dependence on Intel's x86 architecture, as Macs sometimes set trends in the personal computing industry.
As apps created to run on the iOS platform will be able to run natively on ARM-powered Macs, Apple hopes that the streamlining of software and hardware will make it easier for developers to build apps that will work across Apple’s entire range of devices.
The transition could lead to thinner and lighter Mac laptops because Apple's processors use less power than Intel's.
The Boot Camp software, which enables Intel-based Macs to natively run Microsoft Windows in an Apple-supported dual booting environment, will not be implemented on Apple silicon-based Macs. As of late June 2020[update], Apple stated it has "no plans to direct boot into Windows" on ARM-based Macintosh computers. Apple's senior vice president of Software Engineering Craig Federighi suggested that virtualization technology is a viable alternative: "Purely virtualization is the route... Hypervisors can be very efficient, so the need to direct boot shouldn't really be the concern." Microsoft had not commented on whether it would extend its ARM-based Windows license beyond OEM preinstallations.
As in the case following Apple's 2005 announcement of its plan to move to Intel-based processors, concerns have been both raised and dismissed about Apple potentially suffering the Osborne effect as a result of the announcement, whereby consumer demand would drop due to advance public knowledge of obsolescence, but it was also noted that even if an Osborne effect appears, it merely means delayed purchases of Mac computers, not cancelled purchases, and that Apple has enough cash on hand at the time to weather a potential decline in sales. Wired expressed skepticism that Apple's designers can elevate smartphone-related processors to the performance of a Mac Pro, and questioned the true duration of support for Intel binaries on ARM-based Macs and when the first version of the macOS that will not support Intel Macs will be released under Apple's vague commitment to do so "for years to come". On a positive note, Lauren Giret remarked that Apple might "succeed where Microsoft has failed" due to Apple's "tight integration" of hardware and software, and a vast collection of applications that can already run on the new platform.
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