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    Newsletter Issue #988: So is Apple Preparing Another Processor Switch?

    April 20th, 2020

    As much as some people complain that Apple is spending too much time resting on its laurels — particularly with the iPhone and certainly the Mac — change has been a constant for the company over the years. In article in AppleInsider about how the Apple II saved Apple, Steve Jobs is quoted as saying that “all computer architectures have about a ten-year life,” but that was largely about boosting the sale of NeXT gear.

    Now the ten-year lifecycle comment has in sone respects been true for Apple. So while the Apple II was quite a successful computer in the 1970s, the Mac ultimately supplanted it although it took a while.

    Ten years after the Mac debuted in 1984, Apple made a huge change in the processor architecture with the arrival of the PowerPC. Looking back, it wasn’t such an impressive upgrade at first. It took quite a while for apps to be upgraded to the new architecture, so they ran in emulation, and thus much slower than regular Macs of that era.

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    Newsletter Issue #962: I Remember the iMac

    May 7th, 2018

    In 1998, the typical Mac was a large beige desktop, or a black PowerBook. Simple, conservative, powerful. In those days the PowerPC roasted Intel Pentiums for lunch. It took years for the PowerPC’s reign as the fastest PC processor to end.

    In May of that year, Steve Jobs announced a revolution in personal computing — with an emphasis on simple Internet access — the iMac. It didn’t ship until August of that year, but I already had one in my home. As a member of Apple’s Customer Quality Feedback program, I was beta testing the original Bondi Blue iMac. It would go on sale for $1,299, but my Apple contact told me I could keep it if it survived a final firmware update.

    I wasn’t surprised to see it didn’t, and thus I sent it back for, they told me, proper disposal. But armed with that experience, and with Apple’s approval, I wrote an article about iMac for a Phoenix newspaper, which included an interview with none other than Jonathan Ive.

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    Revisiting Mac on ARM

    April 6th, 2018

    I have lived through all the major Mac processor transitions. Makes me feel old. First it was the Motorola 680×0 series, followed by the PowerPC and, by 2006, Intel.

    Overall, the last one went pretty well. There was a way to run PowerPC software for a few years, courtesy of something called Rosetta. It was pretty decent from a performance standpoint, unlike the 680×0 emulator, which suddenly put you a couple of generations behind in terms of how well the apps ran until they went PowerPC. But until the new apps arrived, the all-new RISC architecture didn’t seem so impressive.

    So is Apple planning yet another processor switchover? Well, consider how Apple has managed to deliver its A-series processors with huge performance boosts every year, very noticeable with most apps.

    Compare that to new Intel processor families that might be measurably more powerful than the previous generation, but the performance advantages are often barely noticeable without a scorecard. Apple’s advantage was to create an ARM-based processor family that took direct advantage of iOS. It wasn’t bogged down with legacy support for things that never existed on an Apple platform, making for more efficiency.

    So does Apple have a Mac on ARM in its future? Microsoft tried Windows RT (on ARM) without a whole lot of success, but perhaps its second try will fare better.

    Using Apple’s Xcode, it shouldn’t be such a big deal for developers to go with the transition to ARM, and allow developers to build flat binaries for that and Intel. Recent rumors have it that you’ll be able to run iOS apps on Macs, and vice versa, more or less. The Touch Bar on the latest MacBook Pros runs with a second processor on that computer, an A-series system-on-a-chip. A similar scheme is used for low-level functions on the iMac Pro,

    So Apple is clearly taking you partway already. How long will it require for a full shift, and should you such a possibility seriously?

    It’s a romantic ideal, that Apple has full control of more and more of the parts that make up its hardware. It would also allow the Mac to offer far more differences than just a higher-priced PC in a fancy box.

    According to recent reports from reporter Mark Gurman of Bloomberg, the prospective shift may happen beginning in 2020. Take it with a grain of salt for now.

    But can an iPhone or iPad chip really power a Mac with equal or better performance than current models? Consider the benchmarks that show Apple’s mobile hardware exceeding the performance of most notebook PCs and coming up real close to the MacBook Pro. No doubt those CPUs are not running full tilt to lower the drain on resources and battery life. What will those benchmarks be if Apple allowed them to run full bore?

    What about the chips shipping two years from now? Remember, too, Apple already has control of graphics hardware, so what happens to its existing partners, AMD and NVIDIA? Apple probably wouldn’t care if its taking these steps.

    It wasn’t so easy for Apple to persuade developers to adopt PowerPC, but far easier to go to Intel, since there was so much legacy software on the Windows platform. That meant that many developers knew how to optimize their Mac apps for Intel. As I recall, it wasn’t such a difficult move.

    But there was one key advantage of Apple going Intel, other than being assured of regular improvements, more or less, in the chips. It was the ability to run Windows natively with Boot Camp, and at pretty good speed with virtual machines courtesy of such apps as Parallels Desktop.

    If Boot Camp and virtual machines have to run in emulation on one of these new fangled Macs, how much would performance deteriorate? Or would Apple devise ways to work around this, such as licensing some Intel chip functions using the graphics hardware to reduce the performance bottleneck? I would be loathe to predict how it could be done, but if the ARM chips end up significantly faster than Intel counterparts, maybe most people won’t notice much of a difference.

    It wouldn’t take the infamous performance hit of running Windows under emulation the PowerPC. That was just dreadful. I remember opening a document would often take a full minute or two.

    Some suggest that Apple, which has often ditched older technologies without apology, might just give up on the concept of running Windows on a Mac. But I suspect lots of users still need that feature. I also suspect that Apple is quite capable of devising a solution that wouldn’t hurt performance in any particularly noticeable way.

    But this all needs a reality check. That Apple could make this change doesn’t mean it will. It might very well be that Intel’s existing hardware roadmap is a viable solution, without saddling Apple with the development costs of a new processor transition. But there are good reasons for consistent hardware across its major platforms. If the annual improvements in Apple’s A-series CPUs continue to provide healthy two-digit performance boosts, maybe it will happen after all.

    I’m skeptical, but with Apple, never say never, particularly if Intel confronts any serious headwinds in improving its chips going forward.


    Universal Apps: Is the Mac in Danger?

    February 14th, 2018

    Even though the Mac-oriented blogs are still dealing with the implications of the less-favorable review of the HomePod from Consumer Reports, I thought I’d take a breather. But CR has clearly learned that putting Apple in the headlines generates lots of coverage, especially if it’s negative.

    Now then: There have been published reports that, beginning with macOS 10.14 and iOS 12, you’ll be able to run an iPhone or iPad app on a Mac. And vice versa, although I can see some complexities that are being overlooked in the simplistic coverage about so-called Universal apps.

    But remember that none of this has been confirmed by Apple.

    Now this wouldn’t be the first time that Apple made it possible to develop apps running on two different processors. Besides, the Unix core of iOS and macOS were designed to be portable, capable of running on multiple processors. There was even an Intel version of NeXTSTEP, precursor to the original Mac OS X. So when Apple switched from PowerPC to Intel CPUs beginning in 2006, it wasn’t such a big deal. There was already a version of the OS running on Intel in the test labs just in case such a change became necessary.

    In the early days, it was possible to build apps that would run on Intel and PowerPC, which surely eased the transition. And iOS is basically a slimmed down version of macOS designed to run efficiently on mobile gear.

    So it makes perfect sense that Apple would allow developers to build a new variation of Universal apps to cover it’s current line of computing devices.

    One article I read, however, suggests this might be a way to begin a wide scale transition from Mac to iPhone and iPad. Remember when Steve Jobs referred to Macs as trucks? So are they planning on building crossovers?

    It’s certainly true that there has been some level of cross-pollination across iOS and macOS. Some of this is very much done to provide a more consistent user experience among all of Apple’s computers. This practice resulted, for a time, in complaints about the iOSification of the Mac, that more and more elements of the mobile platform would replace or supplant the traditional macOS interface.

    For the most part, however, the changes were minor. Also don’t forget that iOS 11 brought some Mac multitasking elements, such as a Dock, to the iPad. A Files app, a sort of simplified Finder, allows direct access to some of your files on iPhones and iPads.

    But don’t assume a merger is imminent or in the cards. It may very well be that Apple wanted to improve the ability to use productivity apps on the iPad, and taking some cues from the Mac was simply the logical thing to do. There may be more of that in future iOS updates, but that, again, doesn’t mean the Mac is due to be supplanted. It may simply be a matter of providing the best tools for the tasks at hand.

    So what sort of iOS apps would you expect to run best on a Mac? Probably those designed for the iPad, which is closer to a personal computer than an iPhone. The possibilities would be far more limited the other way around, because those sprawling Mac apps, such as Adobe Photoshop and QuarkXPress, aren’t optimized to work with touchscreens, and their resource requirements are immense. As it stands, Adobe already has iOS apps, but they offer limited functionality and, again, they are optimized for touch rather than a mouse or a trackpad.

    Such significant interface differences would require adjustments and devising easy conversion schemes to make it possible for apps to run on both platforms without serious modification. Remember, too, that iPhones and iPads are designed as limited resource gadgets, with less RAM and less storage space than a Mac.

    That situation is improving, however. Apple is already offering up to 256GB storage on iOS gear. The iPhone X, however, maxes out at 3GB RAM. How long will it be before it hits 8GB to higher, something more capable of handling a resource heavy Mac app? Or will the new Universal app development scheme help programmers to slim down their software and remove bloat?

    Another possibility is that Apple is considering yet another Mac CPU change. There are already ARM coprocessors with limited functionality on the MacBook Pro and the iMac Pro. Don’t be surprised to see this approach on the promised Mac Pro and other Macs beginning this year.

    Does that mean Apple might go all the way, ditch Intel, and go all in for its own CPU designs? With fewer resource limitations, it may be possible to scale up the A-series processor to run much faster on a Mac. So it would certainly be possible for Apple to make the switch.

    As with its previous processor switches, there would be a way to run Intel apps on ARM, and the conversion process would be simplified. Perhaps the ability to build Universal apps will ease such a switchover.

    But what about the ability to run Windows at full tilt on a Mac with Boot Camp, and with decent performance with a virtual machine? Could Apple provide an efficient level of Intel emulation on ARM, so you won’t lose much performance from the switchover?

    I do not pretend to know the actual reasons for these developments. As I said, there is no confirmation that Universal apps are really coming. No doubt Apple has tested such possibilities, however, even a potential ARM switchover. But that doesn’t mean any of it is going to happen anytime soon.