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Rosetta 2.0 for Apple’s Intel-ARM Mac Transition?

Rosetta 2.0 may not be the name of Apple’s Intel – ARM binary translator but Apple has the experience to write a brilliant one.


Apple clearly has a new form of Rosetta software—let’s call it Rosetta 2.0—in store for its Intel-ARM Mac transition. How else can you explain the rapid transition reported by analyst Ming-chi Kuo, who issued his predictions yesterday for the first Macs using new Apple-designed ARM-based processors?

Worth mentioning, Kuo has a very solid track record of reporting unreleased Apple gear. But we’ll see…

Rosetta 2.0

Kuo is reporting that the last Intel-based Macs ever will be a brand new iMac for Q3 2020. Let me make that more clear for Architosh readers who use iMacs for serious professional work.

After this fall, when the last Intel-based iMac arrives, all future models of the iMac will be based on Apple-designed ARM chips. That means in 2021 and 2022, folks looking to buy iMacs for professional app purposes will likely buy ARM-based Macs. But will the professional apps be ready by that time?

Rosetta 2.0 ARM-based chips

Apple-designed ARM-based chips power every Apple product except the Mac. That ends today, and the future of the Mac looks especially exciting. (Image: Wiki Commons)

That is the big question.

Rosetta came out in 2006 to enable new Intel-based Macs to run unmodified software for PowerPC-based Macs. It was user-level software and differed from the 68k emulator for PowerPC that handled Apple’s first chip architecture transition to PowerPC. The latter was integrated into the lowest levels of the Mac OS system and was more capable. If you had an early PowerPC machine as I did, you would recall how well the PowerPC Macs worked at running 68k Mac applications. But PowerPC apps flew, and that helped the transition process.

Intel-ARM Mac Speed?

Kuo reports that the new ARM-based Macs will be 50-100% faster than Intel machines today. That’s the kind of raw speed Apple is going to need to alleviate the natural performance trade-offs that come with binary translators, whether they sit low at the kernel level (like the Mac 68k emulator) of macOS or higher up like Rosetta in 2006.

MORE: The Future: Apple Moving to ARM-based Macs in 2021

With such speed increase advantages, translated x86 (Intel) apps won’t hopefully give users too much heartburn. The one question and immediate concern now, though, is the nature of running Microsoft Windows on ARM-based Macs. Without a native x86 Intel chip on the motherboard, will a binary translator work to handle the entire Windows OS? We know from the PowerPC days that running Windows on PowerPC Macs ultimately sucked due to speed and graphics issues.

Apple may have a good plan for that, but its ultimate end-game is actually to get far more computer users to abandon Windows for Macs in the first place. Doing that will result in developers writing native apps for the Mac in higher volume than today.

If Apple’s new ARM-based Macs coming up are indeed up to 100% faster than current Intel Macs, you can be sure Apple will draw huge attention and with it new conversions.

For today though, we can be confident Apple will show a new Rosetta 2 (Rosetta 2.0) software already working. I  just don’t know if they are calling it by that name.

Post-Keynote Analysis

It looks like Apple did in fact choose to keep the name Rosetta for their binary translator software again—this time calling Rosetta 2! Okay, we called it! And by 2.0 we meant the second time at another software technology called “Rosetta.” But enough about that. What else was really interesting about today? 

Rosetta 2 will be faster than the original version from 2006 and offer capabilities not found on Rosetta 1. It translates Intel apps at install time.

Well, let’s confirm on items above first. As seen in the keynote, Apple chip lead Johny Srouji noted that Apple’s first ARM-based Macs will be based on the A12Z Bionic chip found in the latest 2020 iPad Pro. He also stated some basic facts about how fast Apple’s chips have been improving over time. 100x for the iPhone chip over ten years, plus 1000x improvement on the graphics chip performance over that same time. 

Given Apple’s experience with chip transitions, Rosetta 2 is indeed an improvement over Rosetta from 2006, said Apple today. It will not just have faster performance, it translates at install time and supports dynamic translation for JITs and, just like the first Rosetta, operates transparently to the user. 

Apple has also taken care of OS emulation or virtualization concerns, announcing a new technology that will enable developers to run virtualized environments like Linux and other developer tools. It did not mention Windows by name but “other environments” sounds like Windows virtualized is also possible. Another last point is that all iOS apps will also run on the new ARM-based Macs as well and this too was demoed. 

[Editor’s note. This last section in blue was written and published after the WWDC keynote]

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