Today at Apple’s yearly Worldwide Developers Conference event, held digitally during the COVID-19 crisis, the company announced the biggest change to its Mac line in over a decade. Beginning this year, Mac laptops and desktops will start running on Apple’s own self-designed chips, based on the same ARM hardware that powers iPhones and iPads.
Apple CEO Tim Cook and his team made the announcement, demonstrating macOS running on development hardware similar to the A12Z chips currently in the most expensive iPad Pro. The new hardware will unify iOS, iPadOS, and macOS—in fact, iOS applications will run naively on new ARM-based Macs running macOS Big Sur on day one.
Demonstrations of all of Apple’s first-party software were given, including Final Cut Pro, as well as key third-party programs like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Cloud. Developers can begin to transition existing macOS apps to ARM-based versions with the new Universal 2 Xcode system, a reference to a similar transition that occurred when Apple moved from PowerPC to Intel in the 2000s. Apple says that between automatic tools and manual developer tweaks, most macOS apps can be transitioned “in a few days.”
The company emphasized that it’s focusing on both power and efficiency in its new hardware designs, with long battery life for laptops and lower power consumption for desktops being top priority. But as it transitions from Intel-based hardware to Apple ARM-based hardware, it’s going to have to make sure and bring along the vast majority of programs written for current machines.
To that end, the new Rosetta 2 system will allow programs for Intel-based Macs to run on new ARM-based Macs. Apple didn’t mention any loss in performance—which is almost inevitable—but it did demonstrate Maya and Rise of the Tomb Raider running on Rosetta 2. It was clear that the game was struggling to run at full power.
Apple says that new Macs based on Apple’s in-house silicon will be available to purchase before the end of the year, but that the full transition from Intel to Apple chips will take about two years. During the transition, Apple will continue to refine and release new Intel-based Mac hardware—welcome news for creatives heavily invested in the current system. Developers will be able to apply to Apple for a developer’s kit this week, a Mac Mini running on the A12Z chip.
There’s no indication of which Mac products—MacBook, MacBook Pro, iMac, iMac Pro, Mac Mini, and Mac Pro—will be the first to be available for purchase, or what kind of impact this new top-to-bottom integration will have on the price. It’s possible, even likely, that dramatic changes to the form factor of familiar Macs will be one result of the change. We’ll find out later this year.