Why Apple's ARM Transition is Going to Work

Today it happened. Apple did announce that they are, in fact, transitioning to custom-built ARM processors for Macs. Although they didn’t explicitly say “ARM” during the keynote today, I’m assuming their new CPUs will be based on the ARM architecture as the devkit they announced today is running their A12 ARM processor and it seems natural to consolidate the ecosystem.

Let me start by saying that this not just about the tech. The switch to using ARM is an obvious move that Microsoft has also made, as seen with the newly released Surface Book X. I’m sure it’s a great product, but Microsoft also has traditional Intel-based Laptops in their portfolio. If ARM is the future (greater power efficiency etc.), why isn’t Microsoft fully transitioning to ARM now? And what is Apple going to do better to make ARM Macs more popular than Windows PCs with ARM processors?

The Tech Perspective

While transitioning to ARM may be challenging, with the combination of Apple’s strength in software and hardware engineering, as well as the right management, it is feasible and I have no doubts about their success. This transition is likely to be smoother than Apple’s transition from Power PC to Intel/X86 back in 2005. Factors that will assist in making this transition more manageable include:

  • There is already a large developer base for iOS mobile applications with developers creating applications for Apple’s ARM based devices (iPhone, iPad, Watch, TV) by the millions. In fact, macOS is currently the outlier, relying on Intel Processors and AMD64 architecture while the rest of the lineup, comprising the majority of sold devices, feature Apple-designed chips using ARM-based architecture.
    • In 2005 it was the opposite. Apple announced a transition for the entire lineup, with only the iPod running on ARM processors (which is irrelevant for external developers because it didn’t support third party applications).
  • In addition, Apple already started converging the iOS and macOS ecosystems years ago, making it easier for developers to create content for both platforms.

In my perspective, the reason Apple will gain ground where its competitors are stuck isn’t about technological challenges. It’s about sending the right messages to end-users and developers alike.

The Market Perspective

Now let’s look at Microsoft’s approach with Windows on ARM. This 2020 release of the Surface Book X is not the first time Windows has run ARM. In 2012 Microsoft had already shipped Windows RT as part of a line of tablets running Windows on ARM processors. Unfortunately, it didn’t take off because of a lack of developer support noticed by consumers; it looked like developers, customers, and Microsoft themselves were all waiting to see if the product would gain traction. This time, the software and hardware approaches Microsoft is taking may differ, but the attitude towards the product appears to be the same.

As a Microsoft and Apple customer I’ve realized, over the years, how punishing Microsoft’s strategy is for end users. A few examples:

  • Microsoft’s own WMV-HD video discs didn’t play on their own XBOX360. The XBOX 360 went for HD DVDs instead which also stopped being supported shortly after. 
  • After dropping the Windows Mobile platform, Microsoft also dropped Windows Phone, making purchased apps obsolete and now coming up with the Android-based Surface Duo that will force users as well as developers to start all over again. 
  • Their PC gaming service Games for Windows Live was dropped and purchased content can no longer be downloaded and now some of the same games are sold again for Windows 10, running on the same machines, through the Windows Store.
  • Microsoft had their Zune music store (and hardware) to compete with Apple’s iTunes store and dropped it soon after. Later, they introduced the MSN music store, with purchased music not even being playable on the Zune players. It was also dropped. Now it’s XBOX music. 

As a consumer, I see a pattern. While Microsoft likely made reasonable decisions when launching and shutting down those platforms, I think they didn’t sufficiently consider the impact these decisions would have on the consumer perception of the Microsoft brand as a whole.

Microsoft’s Windows 10 on ARM might have some technical limitations (like the inability to emulate legacy AMD64 applications), but I believe that this is not the reason it’s not gaining traction. Instead, they’re sending the message, “we’re just trying this out to see if people want it.” In fact, Microsoft’s own Product Page for the Surface Book X states that you should look elsewhere if you intend to run Photoshop, indicating it is an experimental product that may never enable the productivity expected from the intel counterparts.

Instead of being encouraged, early adopters are being punished.

This doesn’t mean that Apple hasn’t made some mistakes either (“Ping” anyone?).

This also doesn’t mean that Microsoft doesn’t have good and successful products. Microsoft Azure and Office are popular long-running products. My XBOX is great and it can emulate games dating almost 20 years back because it’s one of the Microsoft products that did, in fact, stick.

If end customers, developers, and the company pushing the product are only waiting for things to gain traction, then the company is self-sabotaging by not consistently investing in the long-term support for its products and through these, the customers.

Apple, on the other hand, has a proven track record of making things that stick, and if they don’t stick they’ll still support them instead of alienating customers by conjuring an alternative product that also doesn’t stick. It’s a catch-22, because corporations don’t want to invest into a product that they see failing, but on the other side customers don’t want to invest into a brand that they know doesn’t stand behind their products.

The reason macOS on ARM will really work is not solely because Apple has the technical side of it figured out and its competitors do not. The real reason is that people believe that it’ll work and are willing to invest in it.

I’m sure, Apple’s competitors have engineers that are just as good as the ones facilitating the ARM transition at Apple right now. But somehow, only Apple can play the long game creating the kind of trust that is necessary for the transition to actually work out.

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