The new lineup of Apple Silicon Macs have pleasantly surprised everyone with the sheer power and performance of the new M1 chip, with the new entry-level models running circles around even Apple’s highest-end Intel MacBooks. However, there’s still one glaring limitation that may prevent many users from taking the plunge just yet: the ability to natively run Windows on the new architecture.
Apple has made it absolutely clear that Boot Camp — the technology that’s allowed Windows to be installed on a separate partition and dual-boot with macOS — is not and will not be supported on the new M1 MacBooks and Mac mini, and although Apple hasn’t closed the door to virtualization using apps such as Parallels, it remains a huge grey area right now.
It’s not so much the virtualization itself — Parallels is already at work on an ARM-based version of Parallels Desktop for Apple’s new M1 Macs — but whether it will be possible to run the Windows operating system in that environment from both a technical and legal perspective.
At this point, Microsoft only offers an ARM-based version of the Windows operating system to very specific hardware platforms, such as its own Surface tablets which use Qualcomm chips; it’s not available for normal consumers to simply purchase off the shelf.
Further, even though it could be theoretically possible for Parallels to emulate the x86 instruction set to natively run the standard Intel version of Windows, there’s a quagmire of licensing issues to sort out that would prevent end users from legally doing so, and might even block companies like Parallels from actually offering support for it — at least officially.
It’s ‘Really Up to Microsoft’
Notably, though, Apple isn’t ruling out the possibility of being able to run Windows on M1 Macs, and in fact Apple’s Senior VP of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi, has punted that ball solidly into Microsoft’s court.
In an interview with Ars Technica, Federighi joined his colleagues Johny Srouji and Greg Joswiak to talk about Apple Silicon in general, and while much of it touted the great things we’ve already heard about the M1 SoC and the future of Apple’s own chip development, when it came to running Windows on M1 Macs, Federighi made it clear that there’s no reason Apple’s new architecture won’t support it, but it’s ultimately up to Microsoft to make that call.
That’s really up to Microsoft. We have the core technologies for them to do that, to run their ARM version of Windows, which in turn of course supports x86 user mode applications. But that’s a decision Microsoft has to make, to bring to license that technology for users to run on these Macs. But the Macs are certainly very capable of it.Craig Federighi, Apple Senior Vice President, Software Engineering
So far, Microsoft hasn’t offered any clues about whether it will be willing to open up the ARM-based version of Windows to Mac users, but for now the answer remains no. A Microsoft spokesperson affirmed to The Verge back in June that “Microsoft only licenses Windows 10 on ARM to OEMs,” and when asked about support for ARM-based Macs, simply added that “we have nothing further to share at this time,” even though the two companies are working closely in other areas, such as ensuring compatibility with Microsoft Office on Apple Silicon Macs.
However, even if Microsoft were to change course, this likely doesn’t mean we’ll see a return of Boot Camp on the M1 Macs or future Apple Silicon Macs. As Federighi told John Gruber of Daring Fireball in an interview earlier this year, “We’re not direct booting an alternate operating system,” adding that “Pure virtualization is the route forward” since the new Apple Silicon architecture is so much more efficient and powerful.
Federighi also mentioned using CrossOver as an alternative, which can run many Intel-based Windows apps in emulation using the Rosetta 2 layer in macOS, and it does so astonishingly well considering how much emulation is going on under the hood — a testament to just how powerful Apple’s M1 chip really is.
However, CrossOver should still be seen as a stop-gap solution, as it’s always fallen somewhat short of virtualization apps that can support the entire Windows operating system environment, although Federighi also pointed to Windows in the cloud as another possible way ahead.