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Macs to run on Apple silicon, leaving Intel behind

Future Macs will not run on Intel processors but on Apple silicon chips. The change could present compatibility issues, although it could be a step toward a consistent user experience.

At this week's Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple announced that future Macs will use ARM processors developed in-house -- "Apple silicon" -- and not the Intel Core-series CPUs on which they're presently based.

During Tuesday's keynote, Apple executives -- including CEO Tim Cook and Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering -- said the change would result in performance improvements while lessening power consumption. The company expects to ship its first Mac based on the new chips later this year, and will transition its Mac product line fully to Apple silicon during the next two years.

Frank GillettFrank Gillett

Industry experts said it was too early to measure the impact of the change, although compatibility with business applications is a potential pain point that Apple could face.

"In the short run, there's no huge practical implication," said Frank Gillett, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. "The question is how fast not just Microsoft, but all the other companies that make enterprise-oriented software … will make the transition."

Mikako KitagawaMikako Kitagawa

Mikako Kitagawa, research director at Gartner, said enterprises typically value stability, which an improperly managed transition would throw into question, and enterprises would likely be taking the move into consideration as they decide which devices they purchase.

A change for Apple

During the presentation, Apple executives emphasized that they are working with developers to ensure both compatibility and that programs take advantage of the chips' performance enhancements.

Federighi said the company's new software, Rosetta 2, would automatically translate existing Mac applications to work with the new processors -- as the original Rosetta did when the firm transitioned from IBM's PowerPC processors to Intel chips. Most applications, he said, would work with no changes from the developer.

Beyond that, Federighi said, Microsoft was working on bringing its Office suite of products -- like Word and Excel -- to the Apple-silicon-based computers. Adobe, similarly, has developed its Creative Cloud applications, which include image software Photoshop and the Premiere Pro video editor, to work efficiently with the new machines.

Experts said the availability of enterprise software and compatibility with legacy applications would be of key importance to companies that use Macs. This switch, Gillett said, could mean one more thing for IT professionals to figure out, and, if compatibility issues arise, create a possible annoyance.

Eric KleinEric Klein

"Until we know more about how effective the Apple technologies are for emulation … it's going to be hard to know exactly what it will be like," he said. "[Apple tries] to make it sound like it will all be wonderful and painless."

Independent analyst Eric Klein said although Apple has been thoughtful with past changes, it can be difficult to account for every possibility.

"There's always some snag that could burn a company that is relying on something that hasn't modernized yet," he said.

Implications for the future

Experts expressed interest in what the change could ultimately mean for Apple devices. Gillett noted that the presentation was vague on the new enterprise capabilities that Apple silicon could make possible.

"[Apple] didn't really elaborate, other than saying, 'Better performance, lower power consumption,'" he said. "They didn't really say what all the cool new things [are] they might be able to do on Macs that they couldn't do with Intel."

Gillett said future Mac users could perhaps interact with their computers as they currently do with their smartphones: The devices could quickly wake from an off or sleeping state and have near-immediate functionality.

"I suspect that Apple will come up with a bunch of creative experiences with Macs, based in part on this new silicon," he said. "I don't think we'll see it for a couple of years, because they'll only reveal it when they're ready to launch the new hardware."

Klein noted that the similar processor architecture across iPhones, iPads and Macs could offer a truly consistent user experience across devices. In such a scenario, different devices would just be alternative means through which users interact with one operating system.

"[Companies would] worry less about the device and focus more on the user experience and capabilities," he said.

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