For decades, pundits have compared Apple’s Macintosh computers to Windows PCs. Recent articles about Apple’s Mac plans provide us with a look inside its hardware and software engineering efforts. They also reveal what Apple is doing to make such comparisons less relevant in the future. I'm going to read the tea leaves a bit to try to figure out what Apple has planned.
Apples to Apples
2005 marked a sea change in the evolution of the Macintosh. At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, the company revealed that it had engineered its Mac OS X software to run on Intel-based computers. Apple announced that the following year, it would begin to ship Macs equipped with Intel CPUs inside. It’s hard to argue with the net results: Apple’s been selling Macs like gangbusters ever since.
Comparisons between Macs and PCs have existed since there was a Mac. But the Intel switch made it much easier for the world to view the Mac as a PC in different clothes. For the first time (once Apple introduced Boot Camp), you could install both operating systems natively on one computer. Many of us benchmarked the Mac running Windows to compare to "true" Windows PCs. At one point, PC Mag even begrudgingly acknowledged Apple’s MacBook Pro as the best Windows laptop you could buy.
It seemed like an Apples to apples comparison (capitalization intentional, pardon the pun), but it wasn’t. People buy PCs for different reasons than they buy Macs. Some are price-driven. Some are performance-driven for specific vertical markets where the Mac comes up a bit short. Gaming is a practical example. The Mac isn’t a PC, and the PC isn’t a Mac, although they work similarly and can do many of the same things.
Now we’re 13 years into the Intel experience, and it hasn’t been without its bumps in the road. Intel’s transition to ever-shrinking transistor sizes has created some supply issues for Apple. That, in turn, held up the release of new Mac models. Intel’s Core processor architecture has evolved beyond just getting faster. Some of those changes aren't easy to explain to the buying public. That makes it harder for Apple (and Windows PC makers) to make new models stand out in meaningful ways. As Moore’s Law winds down, the days of “it’s wicked fast” are behind us.
What comes next for Mac
If a recent Bloomberg article is any indication, Apple may be readying for the next evolution of its Mac processor. This time Apple plans to replace Intel’s chips with those of its own design. Apple’s been designing CPUs for iPhone and iPads for years. Apple compares the processing power its newest CPUs with that of laptop computers. While that may be true within the realm of benchmark tests, it doesn't reflect “real world” use, as much as Apple and others conflate them. Use an iPhone under full processor load; you’ll see what I mean. It gets hot as blazes and isn’t terrifically responsive.
As I see it, the problem with Intel isn't performance-related. The company continues to produce excellent hardware. It's dependence. Apple doesn't want to be dependent on any more external component providers than it has to be. The Mac's dependency on Intel hardware has left Apple demonstrably vulnerable to supply problems. It's a potential security problem, as any bugs or exploits baked into the Intel hardware become Apple's as well. Apple has a lot of reasons to want to get away from Intel.
Bloomberg places the expected timeframe for this transition in 2020. That gives Apple time to iterate its chips with enough power to run a Mac. More importantly, they’ll need time to help developers transition to the new architecture. This process won’t be easy and won’t happen overnight, but Apple’s managed it twice before. In the 1990s Apple switched from Motorola 68K-series CPUs to PowerPC chips, then in 2006, they went from PowerPC to Intel.
It helps this time that the respective operating systems that drive all of these devices share a standard underlying architecture. Apple has been gradually unifying and updating other technologies to simplify portability between platforms, as well. Examples include Apple's Swift programming language, the new APFS file system now used throughout Apple’s product line, or its graphics API, Metal. That’s not to suggest developing for both Mac and iOS is easy as flipping a switch. Both platforms are radically different user experiences. There’s no touchscreen Mac, for example, and there’s no genuinely open file system on iOS. Developers are in for a rough transition, and it will take a long time.
The last time Apple made such a processor change on the Mac, it kept an emulation layer (called Rosetta) built into the operating system for four years. That enabled older legacy applications to run on the new hardware and software. As customers upgraded to new hardware, they upgraded software too (or found suitable replacements).
Bloomberg has separately reported a rumored project at Apple (called “Marzipan”) that would help iOS and Mac apps run as part of a shared framework. This would blur the line between Mac and iOS code, though this is different from what Apple's done before. Details are scant, and rumors only.
Regardless of implementation details, Apple's stakes are much higher now than they were in 2006. Apple’s Mac sales are about half an order of magnitude higher now than they were in 2006. There’s a much more significant ecosystem of users, businesses, and developers potentially affected by a significant architectural change to the Mac.
ARM processors are already in Macs, but for specialized use, such as driving the Touch ID functionality introduced on Touch Bar-equipped Mac laptops. I expect that if Apple does switch the Mac to an ARM-based processor as its main CPU, it’ll probably happen with a low-end Mac model first - either an entry-level laptop device or even a redesigned Mac mini. The MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac Pro would follow at some point in the future, when performance was sufficiently enhanced to make the design switch worth it.
Proof of the Pudding
Speaking of the Mac Pro, TechCrunch’s recent exposé on Apple’s Pro Workflow Team gives us an additional insight worth considering. Apple’s blurring the lines internally to help make sure that Mac hardware and software work as well together as possible to provide optimal performance for the apps that need it the most - the ones relied on by Apple’s most demanding pro customers.
Apple is capitalizing on one of its single biggest strengths when compared to the Windows ecosystem: Apple controls the entire pipeline from end to end. Apple designs the operating system software, the hardware and many of the apps that its users need to work. It’s much more advantageous when all parties concerned can walk down the hall and talk to each other about how best to optimize performance and user experience.
Improving the user experience goes beyond just raw performance, as Apple VP of hardware engineering John Ternus explained to TechCrunch. It involves examining pro user workflows, to understand their bottlenecks and how other tweaks and changes can improve how people actually get things done on their Mac.
“We’ve been focusing on visual effects and video editing and 3D animation and music production, as well,” says Ternus. “And we’ve brought in some pretty incredible talent, really masters of their craft. And so they’re now sitting and building out workflows internally with real content and really looking for what are the bottlenecks. What are the pain points. How can we improve things. And then we take this information where we find it and we go into our architecture team and our performance architects and really drill down and figure out where is the bottleneck. Is it the OS, is it in the drivers, is it in the application, is it in the silicon, and then run it to ground to get it fixed.”
The oft-misquoted expression that comes to mind is, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Apple’s interested in producing the best experience as possible for its users. What’s inside the box becomes much less critical when you show that the act of using it is free of the friction or difficulty you find with other workflows.
Producing a frictionless user experience has long been a hallmark of Apple, and I’m happy to see the Pro Workflow Team taking that philosophy to a new level on the Mac platform. Apple will reveal its Mac plans in due time. I have confidence, though, that whatever changes may come, the Mac will remain a distinctly different device than iOS, no matter how many architectural commonalities they share.