The Unified Platform

Last week Qualcomm announced that major PC vendors (including HP and Asus) will soon be shipping Windows 10 laptops with ARM processors. ARM is the processor architecture that all smartphones run on. Whether an iPhone or Android phone, they all use ARM based processors.

From Digital Trends:

Qualcomm will be using its Snapdragon 835 processor, a chip usually reserved to power smartphones, in a new line of Windows 2-in-1s. They’re referred to as “Always Connected PCs” or “mobile PCs.”

[Source]

These new machines will run Windows 10 S, but with a twist. Unlike other Windows 10 S machines, these won’t be limited to just Windows Store apps - they can also run nearly all traditional Windows apps due to a built-in x86 emulator.

ARM based processors like the Qualcomm’s or Apple’s A11 Bionic have made great leaps and bounds in performance in the past few years. Chips like the A11 Bionic are now just as powerful as the Intel chips in some current MacBook Pros, so it can’t be much of a surprise that they’re now powerful enough to emulate x86 (the processor architecture all Macs and PCs run on). Make no mistake, what Qualcomm & Microsoft have pulled off here is significant. By emulating x86 on an ARM chips they’re opening up the possibilities for mainstream laptops with ARM processors. No longer will a laptop with this type of chip be relegated to the anemic selection of the Windows Store, now the world of software is open to these computers.

This announcement got me thinking about the possibilities for an ARM based Mac. For a few years now there has been wild speculation about Apple releasing a Mac with an A series processor. The thought has been that if Apple were to release such a machine developers would need to completely recompile their applications to be compatible, like they did during the PPC to Intel transition. There has even been talk of an iOS based laptop. What the Qualcomm announcement shows us is that there won’t necessarily be a need for anyone to recompile for an ARM based Mac. If Qualcomm’s chip can do x86 emulation, the A11 Bionic can certainly do the same.

If Apple does release an ARM Mac, I believe they’ll start with the 12” MacBook. MacBook is a perfect fit, with its fanless design and single port it’s already designed to be ultra-mobile basic performance machine. For Mac App Store apps Apple could enable developers to ship software compiled for both x86 and ARM based machines in a single package (they already do something similar with single apps that are universal between iPhone and iPad), and for the developers that don’t recompile for x86, the ARM Mac could run the app in question in x86 emulation mode.

Expanding upon this idea, once the infrastructure is in place Apple could begin to ship hybrid machines. While low end machines would be ARM only, their higher end machines like MacBook Pro and iMac could ship with an Intel processor and an A series ARM chip. I envision functionality similar to how Apple handles graphics switching now - when the Mac is running simple apps (or those compiled natively for ARM) it would rely on the ARM chip, and it would use the Intel chip for high performance apps.

Such a hybrid MacBook Pro could only further extend the battery life one can expect from a laptop. A lot of people only push their machine some of the time, If you’re like me, the majority of computer usage is for basic tasks like web browsing. Imagine an experience where you get killer battery life (say 20 hours) the majority of the time, but still had the raw grunt when handling big tasks (like After Effects and the like).

Alternatively, with x86 emulation we could see an even bigger shift from Apple. From SixColors:

In the last few weeks, both my colleague Jason Snell and I have looked ahead to what Apple might be envisioning for the future of its devices. I’ve opined on ARM-powered Macs; Jason’s wondered about the possibility of a laptop running iOS. In a recent conversation—on our secret podcast, which you should check out—we started to put some pieces together and conjectured that maybe these aren’t two different stories but rather one larger tale of what Apple’s future might hold.

What if, to paraphrase the late Steve Jobs himself, these aren’t two platforms, but one platform with a bunch of devices?

I would be all for for a single unified platform (with different interfaces). Apple already does this with a majority of their product line. iOS, watchOS, and tvOS are all the same thing under the hood - why shouldn’t the Mac be part of this? Apple has repeatedly said that they don’t want to build a unified OS based on touch, but single operating system under the hood, with universal binaries and interfaces to match the device the app is on - that would be a stroke of genius. A unified platform would signal a whole new era for Apple and the Mac.


Typed on MacBook

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