Why musicians shouldn’t worry about Apple’s move away from Intel’s processors for the Mac


WWDC was all about Apple’s big transition away from Intel’s processors to its line of processors. These chips have been dubbed Apple Silicon even though Apple has been designing its silicon for a decade now. The reason Apple announced this transition before the official unveiling of a real product alongside a developer transition kit was because this is a drastic change. While the transition to a new processor architecture isn’t something unique for macOS, this represents a massive change for developers. 

Back in the late 90s when Steve Jobs came back to Apple and reignited its products with iMacs, macOS was designed to run on PowerPC processors which were co-designed by IBM and Apple. Then Apple even adapted OS X to run on these processors. Then came a big change in 2005, when Apple announced that it was moving away from PowerPC chips to Intel’s. This was a huge change because Intel’s chips were also used in Windows PCs – and now developers who focused also on Windows could make apps for both platforms without much trouble as the underlying computing architecture was the same.

Even at the time, Apple announced a bridge software layer called Rosetta. It allowed applications designed for PowerPC chips to run on the Intel-based, albeit with crippled performance. The transition took longer than what Apple claimed and it left many users behind as all developers didn’t toe Apple’s line. It can be argued that the transition to ARM-based, Apple CPUs and GPUs is an even bigger transition which is worrying many musicians who depend on pro software that’s complied for macOS. But there is enough evidence there to assure musicians that Apple will handle this transition better than the one 15 years ago.

  • Apple believes that it can make a transformative leap in performance with Apple Silicon. That’s its main reason for this switch. Usually, one would be sceptical of anyone scaling the ARM architecture to compete with Intel’s x86 on performance, but the reality is that ARM-based chips are now up there with Intel. Currently, the world’s fastest supercomputer in Japan is also based on ARM. Companies like Ampere are making semiconductors for data centers using ARM designs, something which Amazon achieved with its Graviton line of processors years ago. Apple is the greatest exponent of ARM chips in consumer electronics which should make things quite smooth. Today, ARM chips also hold an edge in manufacturing as these chips are produced by TSMC and Samsung who have superior manufacturing technology than Intel.   
  • Apple’s belief in ARM is just not based on what others are doing with the ARM instruction set. It is centred on what Apple has achieved. It has scaled CPU performance on the iPhone 100x in a decade and GPU gains have been even more dramatic at 1000x. It has added features like machine learning accelerators, neural engines, custom ISPs, Secure Enclave. In fact, its developer transition kit is basically a Mac Mini with the iPad Pro’s A12Z Bionic chip which isn’t even a big jump from the A12X Bionic chip that debuted in 2018. Apple seems very bullish on macOS performance on its own ARM chips. Using the modular ARM instruction set, Apple is also able to add custom features which we have already seen on the iPhone and iPad. 
  • The A12z Bionic is known to deliver prodigious performance under great constraints. It can compete with a high-end MacBook Pro allowing for 4K video edits, fast multitasking and superlative battery life in a package that operates inside a 5.9mm frame with thermal constraints of a mobile phone at 5-watt voltage. Apple has easily unlocked a lot of headroom on bigger Mac devices. It can run it faster and hotter. It can design chips that utilise up to 15-watts in voltage while also scaling its architecture with more cores and advances in the manufacturing process. Apple’s processors have tremendous headroom for scaling on notebooks and even desktops. Apple is rumoured to be developing an A14 processor variant which has 12-cores and is on TSMC’s 5nm process. This could deliver 16-inch MacBook Pro levels of performance with the throttling, better battery life that goes beyond 12 hours and in a device that’s not as expensive or big as the 16-inch Mac leviathan.
  • The one big difference from Steve Jobs transition for PowerPC to Intel to what Apple announced last week was the amount of developer support it already has for this change. Microsoft and Adobe, the two most important developers on the planet already have their flagship software suites — Office and Creative Cloud working well on Apple’s ARM chips. They work well on the A12z Bionic chip which likely isn’t going to be Apple’s calling card for its Macs. Even Apple has announced that it has managed to recompile its pro applications Final Cut Pro and Logic 10.5 for its own chips. Apple showed stunning demos of Photoshop handling a complex 5GB PSD file and Final Cut Pro managed to run three streams of 4K video on the A12z Bionic chip in its developer transition kit. 
  • Apple also has a new version of its Rosetta bridge software translation technology and it has announced something called Universal 2. These both are critical for the transition to be successful. Apple claims that Rosetta 2 will be able to translate at the time of install and support Java runtime in JTI which makes it enormously faster than the original Rosetta. Originally, apps running via Rosetta were running at around 50% efficiency. The combination of these new tricks and Apple’s gains in silicon — you could be looking at much more usable Rosetta 2 for apps that haven’t been compiled for Apple Silicon. Then there is Universal 2 which compiles binaries for both Intel and ARM Macs which Apple claims will work with limited modification. Apple also showed Maya and Tomb Raider running via Rosetta 2 quite decently. Apple even said that Rosetta 2 will support plugins and almost everything should work.
  • In 2018, Apple announced Catalyst and SwiftUI Kit. These were technologies which were designed to enable iPad developers to translate their apps to macOS easily. It also created a framework for macOS apps to run on software technology used for iOS and iPad apps. Already a lot of apps are now leveraging this technology and all core macOS apps have been rewritten with it. This technology has also made developers familiar with the new paradigm of apps for macOS apart from giving day 1 compatibility for iOS and iPadOS apps on macOS Big Sur, making it a bigger developer platform. People are going to flock to this. Many believe this will also open avenues for iOS plugins to be compatible with macOS which will be interesting, generally to the benefit of users.  

The biggest concern for musicians is that pro software wouldn’t get upgraded very quickly. App developers and musicians alike are already smarting from the changes in macOS Catalina which have caused a lot of incompatibilities. They fear that Apple is making things harder for small developers and plugin makers. But Apple has detailed changes quite comprehensively. In fact, Apple is so confident of the package it has created that it has also added support for emulation for virtual machines on a silicon level while also dropping support for boot camp to install Windows. This means that users can’t install a copy on Windows on their Mac anymore but they can run it still in a virtualized environment. But this is reflective of how confident Apple is of the performance of Rosetta 2, Universal 2 and its own chips. 

For sure, apps will not get updated overnight. Things will be tricky for folks who aren’t on Apple’s Logic digital audio workstation. But this situation is opening avenues for better performance gains, in the long run, better value for most consumers with their macs and unique levels of synergy between Apple’s various devices as you can imagine the iPad working in deeper collaboration with the Mac. Apple is already doing some of this with the way you can control virtual instruments on the iPad remote app alongside Logic on the Mac. One can also envision Apple releasing iPad versions of these pro apps for the iPad — long story short, the transition could be tricky for some folks but largely it will be pretty smooth thanks to the advances in emulation techniques and Apple’s performance gains on the silicon side. 

PS: All of this comes with the assumption that Apple will flex its muscles on the Mac just the way it has done so on the iPhone and iPad. If Apple isn’t able to provide a major leap in performance then even Rosetta 2 emulation will become problematic. That being said, Apple has already provided ample evidence to squash such concerns.