Now that Apple has announced the new iPads and Apple Watches, the focus will turn to the delayed iPhone 12 family and the first ARM-powered MacBook. In a topsy-turvy world, the former should stand out in a pandemic disrupted market. The latter should bring Apple’s ability to innovate back to the laptop and desktop market.
Yet for all the talk of Apple’s innovation and cutting-edge technology, Microsoft is already there.
This new battleground will focus on laptops and tablets, and specifically on the move towards ARM-based processors. Tim Cook’s Apple has stated that the company is ‘all-in’ with this move, and it should be completed within two years. Although the Intel machines will continue to be supported (and the strength of that support is yet to be confirmed, although the historical precedent suggests the window will be about three and four years).
The first ARM-powered MacOS machine for the public is expected to be launched in October this year. Analysts are pointing towards the adoption of the MacBook Pro name for one of the machines that will use the increased computational power of ARM, and the return of the titular MacBook for a smaller and lighter laptop that takes advantages of the lower thermal and battery requirements of ARM chips.
Microsoft is already there.
Last October saw the release of the Surface Pro X. Following the same design as the Surface Pro 7, launched at the same event, the Pro X stands out because of the CPU; Microsoft’s SQ1, which is a variant of Qualcomm’s 8CX ARM-powered system on chip.
The Surface Pro X has given Microsoft a first-move lead in retail of around 12 months. Microsoft will have gathered a significant amount of data on how the devices are used, as well as the feedback from users in a live environment rather than a supervised marketing research session.
It also raises the visibility of the Windows 10 on ARM platform to Microsoft’s hardware partners. The software development that can be seen on the Pro X will be development that can apply to the whole Windows ARM project and will benefit the computer manufactures that will sell ARM-powered machines in the future.
As the number of ARM machines available grows, so will the Windows 10 on ARM platform. Assuming Microsoft can kick the virtuous cycle into gear then the platform will gather its own momentum. With the likes of Lenovo, HP and Acer involved, and a number of devices announced at the recent IFA for the 8CX Gen 2, the pace is increasing.
Curiously for Microsoft, Apple’s entry into the market with its own implementation of ARM for MacOS legitimizes the space for both of the behemoths. Given the lead time of development, this isn’t a ‘Keeping up with the competition’ scenario, this is the two major players recognizing the way forward.
It also shows up the different approaches of the company. Apple is keeping quiet about its Arm project as much as possible. Developers have test machines – presumably under heavy NDA – and while hardware availability has been noted, exact details are not forthcoming.
In essence, Apple’s ARM will reach the market in what it hopes will be a fully formed offering, with issues such as backwards app compatibility addressed, full support throughout the ecosystem of first- and third-party apps, and software stability all addressed and solved. It help that Apple’s ecosystem is tightly controlled, and many awkward legacy apps were cut loose from MacOS last year with 32-bit app support dropped from MacOS Catalina.
Microsoft has taken another approach, with more of the work done in public. The Surface Pro X proved that Windows 10 on ARM as a concept was the way forward, but there were issues out on the cutting edge. The Pro X supported any app downloaded or purchased through Microsoft’s App Store and legacy 32-bit apps from Windows on Intel would run, but the more advanced 64-bit Intel apps were incompatible with the system.
That 64-bit support is expected to arrive alongside the preemptively named Surface Pro X2 in October… the same time as the ARM MacBook and potentially the ARM MacBook Pro.
The geekerati wait to measure up both the individual machines from Apple and Microsoft, and the depth and reach of their respective ARM-powered ecosystems over the next year. With two competitors pushing each other forward, with two similar but distinct visions that can play off each other, and the start of a new cycle of innovation under way, which vision will win out?