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  • A Curious Slant on the Mac-on-ARM Theory

    March 2nd, 2017

    Walt Mossberg is a long-time tech journalist who used to hang his hat at the Wall Street Journal. His achievements include co-hosting those All Things D events some years back that featured such luminaries as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. These days he’s Executive Editor of The Verge and Editor at Large for Recode.

    When he reviews a product, tech companies take notice. When he comes up with a theory about a possible new product, it will be taken seriously even if it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.

    So take his recent article for The Verge, entitled, “The PC is being redefined.”

    He begins by saying the obvious, how smartphones and tablets have assumed many of the functions of the traditional PC. This is particularly true for the former, since tablets have suffered from flagging sales in the last few years. He blames that, to some degree, on the fact that tablets are often regarded as consumption devices, rather than being suitable for productivity and creativity. He also mentions the long replacement cycle, meaning people hang onto their devices for several years instead of trading them every couple of years, as is usually done with smartphones.

    But Mossberg sees a trend, possible “signs of a tablet revival.” But is he even talking about tablets?

    So he mentions laptops being outfitted with ARM processors, citing Google’s Chromebook Plus and Microsoft’s efforts to allow Windows apps to work on ARM gear. But he overlooks the failure of the Surface RT, which looked and felt like a Windows tablet, but couldn’t run traditional Windows apps built for the x86 platform. This time Microsoft is working to resolve that limitation with — get this — a version of Windows 10 with an emulator.

    Now if that sounds familiar, it’s clear Microsoft’s copying machines are still running at full steam. In the 1990s, when Apple moved from the original Motorola 680×0 CPUs to PowerPC, they fitted Power Macs with an emulator that allowed you to run older software. For the 2006 switch from PowerPC to Intel, Apple provided Rosetta, yet another emulation scheme, and a pretty efficient one actually. In the early days of the PowerPC, the Motorola CPU emulator was dead slow until processors became fast enough to compensate.

    But the fact that Microsoft is doing something does not, obviously, mean it will succeed. I wonder why this move wasn’t considered when the Surface RT came out. Did they not realize that people would expect a computer that ran a version of Windows should be able to run the same apps they could run on other PCs?

    Live and learn.

    Now it appears Mossberg expects Apple to provide a solution to building a more traditional computer using an ARM processor. But his vision is a curious amalgam of Mac and iPad, involving a traditional or Mac-style notebook running iOS. Please stifle your laughter!

    So how does an Apple notebook running iOS differ from the one that runs macOS? Well, both would have keyboards and traditional input devices. Would there be a detachable touchscreen, shades of the refrigerator and toaster oven nightmare envisioned by Apple? Mossberg says, “I personally wouldn’t care.”

    Don’t forget that iOS was designed and optimized for a small device with limited resources. Google used it as the blueprint for Android, perhaps reminiscent of how Microsoft used the Classic Mac OS as the blueprint for Windows.

    Indeed, many complaints about the iPad are all about the fact that it appears to be little more than a larger iPod touch. Very little is being done to optimize the OS for the bigger displays, other than a few limited multitasking tricks, such as Split View. Yes, app designs are richer, to take advantage of the additional display real estate, but may otherwise not function altogether different from their iPhone counterparts.

    If Apple truly wants the iPad to be a more flexible creative tool, iOS would probably have to be enhanced to offer better ways to manage multiple apps, documents, and files. This could all be done without having to stuff iOS into a Mac and expect it to work efficiently. It’s even possible to build better keyboards to help move the creative process along.

    But why would Apple install ARM chips in regular notebook computers and restrict it to iOS? Where’s the logic in that?

    Indeed, Mossberg admits Apple won’t comment on his questions about such an ungainly beast. They gave him the stock answer of not discussing future products, but I would expect perplexed looks on their faces in issuing those responses. Well, maybe it was done via email or phone, so Mossberg wouldn’t even notice.

    This doesn’t mean ARM won’t be used in Apple existing personal computers — Macs.

    In light of the decision by Apple to use an ARM processor to power the Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pro, it’s reasonable to see such chips control more and more Mac functions. That doesn’t mean that Apple will give Intel the heave-ho and replace the processors with ARM. But it’s also true that the iPhone 7 is as fast as many PC notebooks already, even though it’s scaled down for maximum power efficiency in a small mobile device. Unfettered, what would its potential be?

    Building a processor emulator to run Mac apps is old hat for Apple. Since macOS and iOS apps are already developed with the same tool, Xcode, being able to build ARM versions of Mac apps will also present few obstacles.

    How they’d handle Boot Camp and Windows virtual machines without a big performance hit is a huge question mark. Some tech pundits I’ve talked to suggest Apple may do nothing special, and still sell Intel-based Macs for those who need these capabilities. But that would hardly fit Apple’s marketing plan, which is to keep it simple.

    Still, an ARM-based Mac, running macOS, makes sense. But the fact that more and more tech companies are experimenting with ARM-based computers may just be the pressure Intel needs to get its act together, get chips out on time, and meet the performance needs of Apple and other PC companies. So there may never be a Mac solely dependent on A-series silicon.

    Mossberg’s suggestion of an ARM-based notebook running iOS ignores the design goals of Apple’s mobile OS. While one never knows what Apple might be working on, this suggestion doesn’t make a lick of sense to me.



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