ARM Macs are coming, three years after Apple’s attitude change

For years, rumors have swirled that Apple would soon release Macs that run on Apple-designed ARM processors (like the iPhone and iPad do) instead of Intel processors. I keep predicting it myself. It still hasn’t happened.

But this week, reliable Apple supply-chain analyst Ming-Chi Kuo reported that Apple plans on releasing a Mac with an Apple-designed processor in the first half of 2021. It’s a development that seemed highly unlikely to me a few years ago, but a lot has changed since then, starting with Apple’s attitude toward the Mac.

Apple gives the Mac a hug

In November 2016, when I wrote “Why Apple (probably) won’t make an ARM-powered Mac,” I expressed a great deal of optimism that Apple could take the Mac through a processor transition, as it has twice before. All the pieces were there. The real question, for me, was if Apple thought the Mac was worth the trouble.

Back then, it felt like Apple was entirely focused on the iPhone and the iPad, and that the Mac was being kept on life support as an old-school computer platform. If you’re putting the Mac out to pasture, why invest any effort in making a processor transition?

Then something changed in Apple’s attitude toward the Mac, one that was most visible a few months later when Apple gathered a bunch of journalists together and offered a recommitment to the Mac in general and professional users in particular.

Since that day, it’s been a lot easier to imagine Apple justifying the time investment required to put the Mac through a processor transition. But there was a trade-off, too: If the Mac is going to be carried gloriously into the future, that means it has to change and grow. People who think the Mac is just fine as it is are sure to be unimpressed.

Preparing the way

If you look closely, you can see lots of signs of the direction Apple has been going with the Mac. The arrival of macOS Catalina swept away all the old 32-bit code that had been sticking around the Mac since the earliest days. Pulling all the oldest code out of macOS will undoubtedly make it run more readily on 64-bit ARM processors.

apple wwdc19 project catalyst Apple

Mac Catalyst was introduced at WWDC 2019, a year after Apple revealed it was working on the project.

Catalina also introduced Mac Catalyst, a way for iPad apps to be modified to run on the Mac. Thus far Catalyst hasn’t made too much of an impact, but in a world where the Mac runs on ARM processors, it’s not too hard to see where this is all going: Developers will be able to create a single application that runs across all of Apple’s platforms, adapting to phone or tablet or laptop.

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