The march from Intel to “Apple Silicon” has officially begun for the Mac, with Apple announcing it to developers this week, along with the guidelines and the necessary hardware to let them build their macOS apps for the new architecture.
While this isn’t the first time that Apple has made a major shift between CPU platforms, it’s arguably one of the most significant, since Apple is abandoning its 14-year reliance on the Intel chips that power the majority of the world’s personal computers and breaking new ground by putting in the kind of ARM-based CPUs that are found in its mobile devices.
Of course, Apple didn’t use the word “ARM” to describe the new chips; instead, it’s calling them “Apple Silicon” — at least until it’s ready to announce a more official designation. The current “transition kit” for developers is using the same A12Z chip that’s in Apple’s current 2020 iPad Pro, built into a Mac mini running a pre-release version of macOS Big Sur.
So there’s no mistake that under the hood these are going to use the same ultra-powerful architecture as Apple’s iPhone and iPad devices, which should be a huge boon for developers building cross-platform apps, but it’s not going to be without its challenges and growing pains.
When Apple made the transition from PowerPC chips to Intel chips 14 years ago, it had an understandable problem: How to ensure that users buying new Macs wouldn’t be faced within a collection of unusable apps that hadn’t yet been redesigned for the new architecture. Apple’s solution to this was a framework called “Rosetta” that could automatically translate PowerPC apps into Intel on the fly, and while it had a few caveats, the technology performed remarkably well.
With the transition to Apple Silicon, the company is naturally bringing with it another transitional layer, and it’s chosen to bring back the name Rosetta along with it, dubbing it simply “Rosetta 2.” Even the new Intel-and-ARM “universal” binaries that developers will be able to build in order to support both older Intel Macs and the new Apple Silicon Macs are simply being named “Universal 2” binaries.
The naming may not be original, but it’s classic and reflects Apple’s continued commitment to providing the smoothest transition possible. Both the original Rosetta and Universal binaries worked very well 14 years ago, so leveraging the same names for this transition should instil confidence as users purchase the newer Macs using Apple’s own chips.
Boot Camp Is Dead
Unfortunately, Rosetta can only go so far. One of the best things about Apple’s transition to Intel back in 2006 was that Mac owners were suddenly able to natively run Windows on their devices.
Since MacBooks and iMacs used the same Intel chips as Windows PC, you could natively install Windows in a separate partition, and Apple even made this easy through a utility known as “Boot Camp” that would offer to build the partition, start the Windows installation process from your own CD, and even supply all of the necessary Windows drivers for Apple’s hardware.
Well, as much as you couldn’t natively run Windows on Apple’s older PowerPC architecture, you won’t be able to run it on Apple Silicon either.
This means that Boot Camp is going to be a thing of the past. While there are ARM-based versions of Windows 10 out there, it’s unclear whether they’ll be natively supported on Apple Silicon, and while that could be coming eventually, we wouldn’t recommend holding your breath. If you still need to dual-boot into Windows, you’ll want to stick with an Intel Mac for now.
Virtualization Might Get Messy
In the days before Intel Macs, Microsoft offered a tool called Virtual PC that allowed users of PowerPC Macs to run Windows under Mac OS X, similar to what Parallels and VMWare Fusion do today. Virtual PC was actually originally developed as a Mac OS Classic app back in the 1990s by a company called Connectix before being acquired by Microsoft in 2003.
VirtualPC worked, but it was slow. Mind-numbingly slow in some cases. It was okay for running basic business productivity apps, but creative apps like Photoshop were frustrating experiences on all but the most powerful Macs, and running games was completely out of the question.
When Apple launched its Intel-based Macs, Microsoft didn’t bother porting Virtual PC over to Intel (and it didn’t run under Rosetta), so it was basically abandoned. Instead, the torch was picked up by Parallels and VMware, which were able to offer much more effective solutions, since it wasn’t necessary to translate Intel code between Windows and Mac. While virtualization — running Windows inside of Mac OS X — still had some overhead, the performance of these tools ran circles around the original Virtual PC solution thanks to the common architecture shared between both platforms.
Out of the box, Apple’s new ARM-based Macs aren’t going to support Parallels or VMware Fusion. Rosetta 2 is only designed to translate code for high-level applications, and won’t be able to handle the kind of low-level stuff like kernel extensions that are required to support virtualization apps.
Rosetta 2 is intended solely to provide a bridge to give developers some breathing room to get their native Apple Silicon apps ready, so it’s neither a low-level solution, nor a long term one, and there’s a good chance it will disappear completely in a future macOS release (the original Rosetta was introduced in 2006 in Mac OS X Tiger 10.4.4, and became an optional component in Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard in 2009 before being removed entirely in Mac OS X 10.7 Lion the following year).
In short, this means that as things stand right now, new Macs using Apple Silicon will not be able to run current versions of Parallels or VMware Fusion at all. They simply won’t work, as they require too many low-level components that Rosetta 2 isn’t designed to handle.
That said, unlike Boot Camp, this doesn’t rule out the possibility of Windows virtualization apps reappearing as native Apple Silicon apps, but it does mean that the developers of Parallels, VMware Fusion, and others will need to specifically rewrite their apps for Apple’s new architecture, and it’s a safe bet that when (or if) they do, these are going to be paid upgrades.
What’s more of an open question, however, is how well virtualization of Intel-based operating systems will work, as we’ll be back to the same underlying challenges that Virtual PC faced in the PowerPC days of having to translate instructions between two completely different architectures. Of course, Apple’s own chips are expected to be much faster than the PowerPC chips of yesteryear, so there’s a good chance they’ll be better equipped to handle it, but there’s still going to be some considerable overhead involved, and it’s quite possible that the days of running high-performance Windows apps on Macs may be coming to an end.
Fortunately, of course, the world is a very different place than it was 14 years ago, and there are likely a lot fewer Mac users who actually still need to run Windows apps than there were back then.
Still, there’s a psychological component to it that Apple may have to overcome; even today in many cases Boot Camp and virtualization apps act as a good security blanket for users who were nervous about switching to Mac and leaving their Windows world behind. However, it’s often little more than that — we’ve encountered many users who were only comfortable making the switch to Mac because Boot Camp was available, but ultimately never even installed it.