Developers
July 13, 2020

What Apple’s Processor Announcement Means For Mac Developers

WWDC ushered in a new era of Mac computing, creating new opportunities and challenges for Mac developers.
Source: Apple

Of all the announcements to come out of WWDC 2020, Apple’s move to custom silicon for the Mac was by far the biggest, with the most far-reaching consequences.

Apple’s Mac line of computers have run on Intel processors since 2006. Prior to that, Macs were powered by the PowerPC (PPC) line of chips. A product of the AIM alliance (Apple, IBM and Motorola) PPC chips were RISC (reduced instruction set computer) CPUs. RISC chips are well known for being a very efficient design that offers good performance.

Unfortunately for Apple, however, Motorola and IBM failed to keep up with Intel in the performance battle. As a result, Apple’s computers started lagging behind the market significantly, prompting the company to abandon PPC in favor of Intel’s chips.

Once again, however, Apple has found itself at the mercy of an outside CPU vendor and whatever issues they may be facing. In the case of Intel, they have struggled to move to 10nm chips and have faced supply constraints for some time. To make matters worse, Intel’s processors have been plagued by security issues, some of which have been deemed unfixable.

Adding insult to injury, Intel’s processors have made it difficult for Apple to provide the necessary performance in its MacBooks. Because Intel’s chips run relatively hot, some of Apple’s recent high-end MacBook Pros were forced to throttle their speed under load. As a result, in some cases the high-end models actually ran slower than entry and mid-level models.

The Move to Custom Silicon

Apple has been using ARM processors, designed by Arm Holdings, in its iPhone and iPads for years. Arm Holdings doesn’t manufacture its processors, instead licensing their designs to client companies. Apple holds the most generous license, allowing them to customize Arm’s design as much as they like.

This freedom is one of the reasons Apple’s devices consistently outperform those of competitors, despite those competitors also using ARM chips. In fact, the current iPad Pros easily best most PC laptops, in terms of performance. Even more impressive, the iPad Pro manages that despite not having a single fan.

As a result, Apple’s move to its own custom, ARM-based silicon will help the company deliver unprecedented performance while offering better battery life and cooler operation.

An added benefit is greater compatibility with iOS and iPadOS apps. In the WWDC keynote, Craig Federighi showed an ARM-based Mac running several iOS apps natively.

How the Transition Will Occur

Apple has outlined several technologies that will help ease the transition.

Xcode Recompile

The best option is for developers to use Xcode to recompile their apps for the new processors. According to Apple, it will only take a few days for most developers to migrate their apps to the new architecture.

In fact, Microsoft and Adobe already have versions of their flagship programs running on Apple’s silicon. Similarly, Apple demoed Parallels running Linux on one of the development machines, and VMware announced an early build of their popular Fusion software.

Therefore, it should be a relatively simple matter to convert most apps, especially if apps as complicated as the above are already making the transition.

Rosetta 2

For apps that are not updated, whether because of lack of resources or some technical difficulty, Apple is including Rosetta 2 as a translation layer.

Rosetta first made its appearance during Apple’s transition from PPC to Intel, letting the new machines run older software that had not been updated. The new version has significant advantages over the original, however. The original version of Rosetta translated applications at runtime, meaning that every time an application ran it had the overhead of being translated.

In contrast, while Rosetta 2 has a just-in-time (JIT) compiler for edge-case scenarios, it will normally translate the software at the time of install, rather than runtime. As a result, for most apps the translation will occur once, and then provide near-native speed when the application is running.

One exception, however, is virtualization software like Parallels or VMware. Apple has stated these kind of apps will not run through Rosetta translation. Instead, they will need to be recompiled to run natively, as both Parallels and VMware are doing.

Programming Language and APIs

One concern some developers may have is whether they have to learn a new language or API. The short answer is no.

Swift remains Apple’s development language of choice. In fact, thanks to the effort Apple has done on the backend, there should be relatively few changes on the frontend. Many of the APIs and technologies Apple has been pushing for the last couple of years, such as Mac Catalyst and SwiftUI, are the foundation stones of this architecture change. Worst case, developers may need to learn some updated APIs.

The Future of Mac Development

One thing is certain: The change to custom silicon will allow Apple to innovate far more than reliance on Intel’s chips allowed. This will ultimately be a good thing for developers, as it will open all new opportunities.

TagsApple’s ProcessorAppleProgramming LanguageMac Development
Matt Milano
Technical Writer
Matt is a tech journalist and writer with a background in web and software development.

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DevelopersJuly 13, 2020
What Apple’s Processor Announcement Means For Mac Developers
WWDC ushered in a new era of Mac computing, creating new opportunities and challenges for Mac developers.

Of all the announcements to come out of WWDC 2020, Apple’s move to custom silicon for the Mac was by far the biggest, with the most far-reaching consequences.

Apple’s Mac line of computers have run on Intel processors since 2006. Prior to that, Macs were powered by the PowerPC (PPC) line of chips. A product of the AIM alliance (Apple, IBM and Motorola) PPC chips were RISC (reduced instruction set computer) CPUs. RISC chips are well known for being a very efficient design that offers good performance.

Unfortunately for Apple, however, Motorola and IBM failed to keep up with Intel in the performance battle. As a result, Apple’s computers started lagging behind the market significantly, prompting the company to abandon PPC in favor of Intel’s chips.

Once again, however, Apple has found itself at the mercy of an outside CPU vendor and whatever issues they may be facing. In the case of Intel, they have struggled to move to 10nm chips and have faced supply constraints for some time. To make matters worse, Intel’s processors have been plagued by security issues, some of which have been deemed unfixable.

Adding insult to injury, Intel’s processors have made it difficult for Apple to provide the necessary performance in its MacBooks. Because Intel’s chips run relatively hot, some of Apple’s recent high-end MacBook Pros were forced to throttle their speed under load. As a result, in some cases the high-end models actually ran slower than entry and mid-level models.

The Move to Custom Silicon

Apple has been using ARM processors, designed by Arm Holdings, in its iPhone and iPads for years. Arm Holdings doesn’t manufacture its processors, instead licensing their designs to client companies. Apple holds the most generous license, allowing them to customize Arm’s design as much as they like.

This freedom is one of the reasons Apple’s devices consistently outperform those of competitors, despite those competitors also using ARM chips. In fact, the current iPad Pros easily best most PC laptops, in terms of performance. Even more impressive, the iPad Pro manages that despite not having a single fan.

As a result, Apple’s move to its own custom, ARM-based silicon will help the company deliver unprecedented performance while offering better battery life and cooler operation.

An added benefit is greater compatibility with iOS and iPadOS apps. In the WWDC keynote, Craig Federighi showed an ARM-based Mac running several iOS apps natively.

How the Transition Will Occur

Apple has outlined several technologies that will help ease the transition.

Xcode Recompile

The best option is for developers to use Xcode to recompile their apps for the new processors. According to Apple, it will only take a few days for most developers to migrate their apps to the new architecture.

In fact, Microsoft and Adobe already have versions of their flagship programs running on Apple’s silicon. Similarly, Apple demoed Parallels running Linux on one of the development machines, and VMware announced an early build of their popular Fusion software.

Therefore, it should be a relatively simple matter to convert most apps, especially if apps as complicated as the above are already making the transition.

Rosetta 2

For apps that are not updated, whether because of lack of resources or some technical difficulty, Apple is including Rosetta 2 as a translation layer.

Rosetta first made its appearance during Apple’s transition from PPC to Intel, letting the new machines run older software that had not been updated. The new version has significant advantages over the original, however. The original version of Rosetta translated applications at runtime, meaning that every time an application ran it had the overhead of being translated.

In contrast, while Rosetta 2 has a just-in-time (JIT) compiler for edge-case scenarios, it will normally translate the software at the time of install, rather than runtime. As a result, for most apps the translation will occur once, and then provide near-native speed when the application is running.

One exception, however, is virtualization software like Parallels or VMware. Apple has stated these kind of apps will not run through Rosetta translation. Instead, they will need to be recompiled to run natively, as both Parallels and VMware are doing.

Programming Language and APIs

One concern some developers may have is whether they have to learn a new language or API. The short answer is no.

Swift remains Apple’s development language of choice. In fact, thanks to the effort Apple has done on the backend, there should be relatively few changes on the frontend. Many of the APIs and technologies Apple has been pushing for the last couple of years, such as Mac Catalyst and SwiftUI, are the foundation stones of this architecture change. Worst case, developers may need to learn some updated APIs.

The Future of Mac Development

One thing is certain: The change to custom silicon will allow Apple to innovate far more than reliance on Intel’s chips allowed. This will ultimately be a good thing for developers, as it will open all new opportunities.

Apple’s Processor
Apple
Programming Language
Mac Development
About the author
Matt Milano -Technical Writer
Matt is a tech journalist and writer with a background in web and software development.

Related Articles