Apple’s plan to push its Mac-based devices to its own custom hardware architecture creates IT maintenance issues for years to come—but it could turn out insanely great.
It can feel like a lifetime ago, but there was a time when Apple products were fairly specialized. Perhaps your video team or your art department used Macs, but many rank-and-file folks stuck with Windows machines.
In the past decade, that has changed in a big way, due to a combination of factors: one, the rise of the iPod and the iPhone, which built consumer affinity toward Apple; two, the growing quality of Apple’s machines, particularly its laptops, which trounced its PC counterparts for years; and three, Apple’s 2005 move to Intel processors, which brought Macs compatibility with PC architectures and even let them run Windows. While in practice most people never ran Windows on their Mac, the capability likely won over IT departments.
But a dramatic move could shake up the Apple cart in the coming years. Last week at its virtual Worldwide Developers Conference, the company announced a plan to shift Macs to its proprietary Apple Silicon architecture, a processor technology used in its iPhones and iPads and based on a chip specification made by ARM. In other words, bye-bye Intel.
ARM chips are everywhere—including in your smartphones, tablets, and your kid’s Nintendo Switch. They work well in small devices, as they are fast and highly efficient. But they have never found mainstream success in the desktop computer space, which is likely to change thanks to Apple. This is likely a smart move for the MacBook-maker, as it allows them more control over their devices.
But is it a good move for your association, which often has to work across platforms and devices? That’s where things get a bit complicated. Let me explain some of the positives and negatives of the move for IT teams:
POSITIVE: New Macs may be cheaper than before. In recent years, it’s become fairly common for there to be a “Mac tax” on Apple equipment. Apple charges a premium for its devices, but so too can vendors like Intel and AMD, which charge hundreds of dollars for the high-end processors and graphics chips current Macs use. By using its own chips, Apple can potentially cut costs significantly, as it did with the $399 iPhone SE. The device has a processor just as powerful as its $1,099 iPhone 11 Pro Max, but Apple kept costs low by using an older design.
POSITIVE: Devices’ thermal efficiency and battery life may improve. Intel has struggled with energy efficiency, which has limited gains in performance especially for its laptop processors. This has caused trouble for Apple’s thin and light devices, and some recent ones have run hot as a result. (Its most recent 16-inch MacBook Pro is thicker, partly for this reason.) ARM chipsets, meanwhile, are known for efficiency, including in the handful of Windows-based devices that use them.
NEGATIVE: The shift will create compatibility problems, especially with Windows. Apple’s move away from Intel cuts sharply from the past, leaving some vintage Mac apps behind—though the wide use of iOS apps softens the blow significantly, and Apple has a plan for those old apps, too. More troubling for some will be the loss of access to Windows, which will likely be most felt by developers (who often test across platforms) or those who need access to custom applications. This is not a theoretical problem—Windows has had limited ARM support for a while, but it has not taken off mostly because of compatibility issues—but Apple is better positioned than Microsoft to deal with compatibility risks. (One piece of silver lining: Linux support of ARM devices is robust, so virtualization options beyond Windows will be plentiful for those who need it, such as developers or sysadmins.)
NEGATIVE: Your Intel Macs now have an expiration date. When Apple last made a processor shift, from PowerPC to Intel, it offered only two additional versions of Mac OS X for the older devices, effectively cutting them off roughly three years after they were last sold new. That’s a dangerous spot for enterprise Mac owners to be in, especially those with a fleet of laptops to maintain or those who spent thousands on professional-grade models like the Mac Pro or iMac Pro. As PCs have matured, the three-year upgrade cycle has extended significantly in many cases. While Apple has promised updates to Intel Macs for “years,” that may be too open-ended for many IT execs. There are already trust issues between Apple and some of its customers; they could worsen.
And beyond those points, there are other unknowns. One: How will the new processors scale up for high-end uses like audio production or video editing? Another: How will new processors change device maintenance?
And there’s also the question of whether this kind of change matters less now than it did 15 years ago, thanks to most of our tools being primarily web-based.
But as iPhones remain hugely influential in our lives, so too will Macs—especially if you’re developing apps for iOS devices, as many associations are.
The fact is, if you manage tech, this change will likely affect your organization. Get ready.