Thoughts on Apple Silicon (ARM)

So as I predicted 4 years ago, Apple is finally releasing ARM based Macs, or as they like to say, Macs with Apple Silicon.

So what are some interesting takeaways from this announcement? They are doing this transition very similar to how I remember the transition from PowerPC to intel happened.

We had universal binaries, which mean executable files would contain both PowerPC and intel machine code. Same deal today only with intel and ARM machine code, and renamed to Universal 2.

Rosetta is back as Rosetta 2. The original one was basically an emulator. Rosetta 2 in contrast is quite interesting in that it translates intel code to ARM code upon installation. This actually sounds quite impressive. So even without developers specifically recompiling their apps for Universal 2, you can run old apps made for intel Macs on your new ARM based Macs with close to native performance. That is pretty cool.

One of the worries has been whether an ARM based Mac will be fast enought. I saw many people speculating that as it stands now ARM would not be fast enought for 4K video editing. Judging by their demos where they ran several 4K streams and applied filters in real time, such speak is nonsense.

The way they positioned themselves in this talk, it seems Apple is very confident that they can deliver high performance with ARM. The world fastest computer (june, 2020) actually runs on ARM processors.

Other pundits has made some rather wild speculations about transition to some sort of iOS operating system for the Mac. I don’t know who believed that, but that is also nonsense. This is regular macOS geting a visual makeover. The Application icons now look like iOS application icons.

I think the reason for this choice is likely to harmonize it with iPhone and iPad apps, which now will be able to run natively on the Mac. I think this makes more sense than what Microsoft tried with trying the same operating system an every type of device. I like my devices to have different operating systems tailored to the advantages of each platform.

In fact I am actually somewhat skeptical of bringing iOS applications to macOS as it will easily make developers lazy and make an iOS version instead of ever making a macOS version of their software. I don’t think Steve Jobs e.g. would have allowed iOS apps on macOS. This smells more of the kitchen sink approach modern Apple is drifiting towards where they are doing more of everything. They are getting into Windows territory where the belief has always been that more is more. The whole idea of Apple has always been less is more. That is the golden rule of user interface design.

But I am okay with it. They seem to have done a good job of making is integrate smoothly. It looks less jarring than how Microsoft did it in Windows. macOS and iOS have been converging in aesthetics for a while and so they can live side by side without looking out of place.

Specialized Hardware Units

One things I have not paid much attention to in the past is the increasing number of specialized silicon in Apple ARM chips. They do crypto, graphics, neural networks and more now in hardware.

This is a trend I think will accelerate. Apple will exploit that fact that by controlling the operating system and the hardware, they can do something the competition cannot as easily do, which is to plan new software features and then simply add specialized hardware to support it.

They strategy may not be to try to beat intel on raw performance but to exploit the fact that almost all pro-applications primarily need high performance in a very narrow set of features. Video encoding e.g. can be done in specialized hardware.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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