Apple ARM-Based Macs May Arrive Soon. Developers Need to Prepare.

For years, rumors have drifted that Apple will shift its laptops and desktops to ARM-based processors, replacing Intel’s x86-based chips. A new report from Bloomberg suggests that transition will happen within the next year, which could make things very interesting for developers who build apps and services for Mac. 

The Bloomberg report suggests that Apple will announce its ARM plans at this year’s WWDC, scheduled to take place virtually due to the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on physical events. Apple already relies on ARM architecture for its mobile devices, including the iPhone; an ARM chip for Mac could deliver similar energy efficiency—the big question is whether the ARM chips can match Intel’s processing power. 

It seems unlikely that Apple would launch ARM-based Macs incapable of delivering the performance that laptop and desktop users expect, although some previous laptop ARM-vs.-Intel tests have only yielded middling results for ARM

The software and apps running on these “new” Macs could also become a significant issue. Apple will need to communicate exactly what Mac developers will need to do in order to successfully port their apps to ARM-based machines (which is why it makes sense that the announcement may happen at WWDC, which is Apple’s prime forum for explaining changes to its developer community).

Mac developers have already been through quite a bit. First there was the transition to 64-bit architecture; then Apple announced Catalyst, a plan to unite iOS and macOS via tools for building cross-platform apps; then you have the Mac ecosystem’s hardware issues, particularly in the “pro” context.

In a survey Dice conducted late last year, developers suggested they don’t really care overwhelmingly about developing cross-platform apps using Catalyst tooling, which could impede Apple’s attempts to transform the Mac App Store into a robust app portal on the scale of the iOS App Store:

If Apple doesn’t fully convince developers that it’s worth porting older apps to ARM, then the quest to build up that robust app ecosystem could receive yet another significant blow. Granted, major companies will always expend the resources necessary to bring their software into a new paradigm; but if Apple is muddled or confused in its developer messaging around Mac ARM, some smaller (and innovative) developers might choose to not burn the effort necessary to ARM their apps (pun definitely intended).

It’s worth recalling how Microsoft’s early attempts at ARM-based Windows were a miserable failure, largely because developers were unwilling to put much time and resources into rebuilding their apps for the new processing platform. In that scenario, of course, those developers also had the option of continuing to build for x86-based Windows, which they did. But if Apple goes all-ARM, developers who want to stick with its ecosystem will have no choice but to embrace a new way of doing things. At least it could make porting apps to iOS and iPadOS even simpler.