The latest rumors of possible ARM-based Macs has this author’s mind reeling. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. There needs to be “good” in the idea and that good needs to fall into the hands of Apple’s customers and importantly is growing legions of developers.
Initially this author believed, a few years ago, that ARM-based Macs might begin to set Apple apart from the Windows crowd. It could certainly help create laptops that are extremely thin and light and have remarkable battery life. Who doesn’t want their mobile’s battery to last a ridiculous amount of time? But that was years ago and a lot has changed. Apple’s Macs have been making fantastic inroads into many industries (including and importantly to Architosh—CAD and 3D industries)…and all without the uniqueness of ARM chips.
It is very tempting to put some faith into the truth of the ARM-based Mac rumors. Apple has shown the world time and time again just how far it will go to stand apart from the crowd. And in the process of doing that with its Mac history it has had some fantastic failures, such as the Mac Cube.
The concept of ARM-based Macs is not without its many possible virtues. It’s just that the benefits that come to those devices offer the Mac community a lot less than the benefits that will be lost with native x86 (Intel) compatibility. Having discussed in depth with CAD and 3D software executives for years now about Apple’s migration to x86, the likely chief reason why Apple’s Mac platform has rebounded so superbly in the lucrative CAD and 3D industries is because of the Intel x86 compatibility with chip architectures.
What many fail to understand is that complex professional software tools like CAD and 3D require toolkits, geometry kernels, and engines made by a vast array of other developers. Those folks serve legions within the Windows world and have had to wait for the pressure to rise high enough before they made the effort to produce Mac versions of their toolkits. We are just now, for the first time in the history of the Mac, at the point where the OS X platform has a healthy array of toolkits and options at the disposal of Mac software developers. An ARM migration now would undo more than a half decade of work put into the “Mac on Intel” platform and with it undo much of Apple’s Mac market share gains.
Why put a bigger engine on your boat if you are going to punch holes in its hull?
It’s About Being Comfortable
With Intel compatibility one gets Windows compatibility. And that changes everything for so many people in the professional markets. It means users who migrate to the Mac have a safety net, lessening the sense of risk involved in such a migration to begin with. It would be foolish to underestimate the importance of that perception of safety. Users are also keenly aware that Macs must be equally, or more powerful, because their parts inside are the same as Windows machines. Notice the extent that the folks at BOXX, a maker of Windows workstation computers, went to attack the new Mac Pro after it was released.
They were so concerned about Apple’s new workstation pulling power users away from machines like theirs that they produced a satirical ad on YoutTube that gained some notice. (see link above for ad).
Have Your Cake and Eat It Too
Users also know that they can have their cake and eat it too—variously using both OS X and Windows through virtualization or native Boot Camp. That flexibility gives people both security and incentives. Back in the PowerPC days this author, and many of the readers of Architosh, argued against the notion of x86 chip compatibility. The thought was that if a user could run Windows and the applications they need on Macs just as well as on PC computers, why would the developer put in the effort and cost to port their software to native Mac code? It was a really good question and still has validity. But this author, and those who thought along such lines, were mostly wrong.
It turns out that once users acquire Mac hardware, even if they go back and forth between Windows and Mac OS X—especially if they go back and forth between the two operating systems—they end up preferring OS X better. At least the vast majority of them do. This is very powerful and in Apple’s favor. It would be foolish to migrate away from the ability to run Windows on Macs. And for those developers who have not ported popular Windows apps over to Mac because their users will run them in Boot Camp or virtualization anyway? Asking them to target ARM probably isn’t going to help matters either.
It’s Not About Sexy
People do think Macs are sexier looking than everything else. That’s part of the appeal of the Mac platform. But asking Macs to get even skinnier isn’t really that necessary. They are thin enough. Our Macs do not need to go on a diet; they are already the “Victoria’s Secret” supermodels of computers. What Macs continue to need are a spectrum of things that don’t belong to the world of aesthetic matters.
With Apple’s IBM partnership and rumored 12-inch iPad Pro there is plenty concern that Apple may be forging a plan to attack the enterprise. But the SMB market that has favored Apple—and been so true to it for so many decades—deserves the consideration from Apple that a parent might have for a first child. It’s true that ARM-based Macs may play a unique and powerful role in Apple and IBM’s future as enterprise partners, as they leverage the iOS platform and mobility and cloud in the enterprise.
But let’s hope Apple, in pursuing its future offspring there, doesn’t forget the needs of its vitally loyal—and growing—x86 based SMB markets which are already happily migrating at a steady clip to Macs with Intel inside.
[Editor’s note: This article got edited 15 Jan 2015, 12:33 EDT]