Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Climbing Up the Walls

Apple’s introduction at WWDC of Macs running on own-brand processors was as complete as many people were expecting. There was a rationale for the transition, an explanation of how developers can make their software run on these new systems, a way for older software to run without developer intervention, and a timeline for its rollout.

But what was not changed with this transition has proved to be just as interesting as all of the new things that were shown off. Apple is going to great lengths to make this transition as seamless as possible. It is contributing patches to popular open source projects, even Electron, and it is even bringing deprecated technologies like OpenGL to ARM. Most importantly, the company has repeatedly promised that it will not be taking the Mac to a more locked-down model like iOS.

For some reason, these assurances have not stopped Alex Cranz of Gizmodo from speculating that this is Apple’s walled garden “grow[ing] higher”:

Apple has finally announced its long-rumored transition away from Intel chips and will now make its own homegrown CPUs based on the ARM architecture for future Macs. The company’s goal is to shed its dependence on Intel so that it can control even more of its production and development pipeline. It’s an interesting move at an even more interesting time, given that Apple CEO Tim Cook has also finally agreed to testify on Capitol Hill in a Big Tech antitrust hearing. Just last month, the European Union opened its own antitrust probe into Apple and its App Store. The company is being investigated and criticized for its near-perfect execution of vertical integration more than ever before, just as it’s taking its biggest step toward its grand vision of vertical integration in nearly 15 years.

So that’s the argument: Apple’s vertical integration of own-brand processors for the Mac is of similar concern to the App Stores and in-app purchase rules that it enforces on iOS. I don’t think that makes any sense at all but, first, let’s hear from an analyst about why Apple would want to switch from Intel:

“Apple hasn’t been very successful over the past five years with the Mac and most of the innovation has come from Windows vendors,” analyst Patrick Moorhead told Gizmodo. “I think Apple sees vertical integration as a way to lower costs and differentiate. We’ll see. It’s a risky and expensive move for Apple, and right now I’m scratching my head on why Apple would do this. There’s no clear benefit for developers or for users, and it appears Apple is trying to boost profits.”

The Mac’s reputation has suffered in the last five years due, in part, to the crappy keyboards it shipped on its laptops and less-frequent product updates — and one reason it did not release new Macs as often is because Intel struggled with new processor development. But it should not be surprising that Moorhead ignores the benefits that Apple stated for users and developers and the problems Intel has had because Intel is one of his clients, something this article does not mention.

Also, despite its keyboard problems and more stagnant product line, Apple’s Mac sales over the last five years have been its best ever. It’s hard to see how it “hasn’t been very successful” on those grounds.

Cranz spends the next several paragraphs explaining why a purely financial argument does not adequately justify the processor switch. True. There are also many paragraphs about the benefits of and problems with Apple’s control over the App Store on iOS. That takes us to the core of Cranz’s argument:

Unlike iOS, macOS developers have always been able to skirt around using the Mac App Store. I can go to directly to a developer’s site for most apps and just buy what I want outside of the App Store. But how long will that continue in the future macOS landscape, particularly if the main people developing for the operating system are doing so alongside their iOS and iPadOS builds? Apple has repeatedly said it has no plans to turn macOS into a walled garden, as has always been the case with iOS and iPadOS, but it might effectively have done just that with the ARM switch.

That’s it. There is no greater explanation offered for why switching to a different processor architecture is an equivalent to the App Store model on iOS. Cranz points out all the ways the ARM transition is supposed to be easy for developers and invisible to users and some of its unique benefits, but writes absolutely nothing to justify this particular statement, other than the FUD-grade question about how long developers will keep shipping their apps independently. Given the state of the Mac App Store and how many developers would prefer to keep as much of their revenue as they can — this very article began with a nod at antitrust investigations over Apple’s in-app purchase requirements — I see no reason why great Mac apps won’t continue to be offered directly by developers.

Brent Simmons:

[…] I had been very worried that Apple would, as part of the ARM transition, lock down macOS so that only Mac App Store apps would be permitted.

That didn’t happen. And Apple employees explained that it’s not going to happen — and, given that it didn’t happen this time, given that they had this chance, I believe them.

I understand adding security features to the Mac. But to take away our freedom to create whatever Mac apps we want, and distribute them without Apple’s, or anyone’s, seal of approval, would be to take the heart out of my career.

But that’s not what happened! I feel great about this. I’m going to stop worrying about the Mac.

I was also fretting about what a Mac running on Apple’s own processors might entail. I was nervous about how difficult it might be to upgrade to one when it comes time to do so. I still have my concerns, but I truly believe Apple when it says that it does not want to merge the Mac and iPad, or implement an iOS-like App Store-only model on MacOS.

Cranz’s pieces feels like one of those articles where a writer started with a premise and found the parts that fit while ignoring those that did not. Just about everything that is possible on a Catalina system running on Intel will be possible on a Big Sur system running on Apple’s own processors, with the exception of using Windows through Boot Camp. It’s not nothing, but it does not indicate an expansion of a walled garden, either. We can speculate all we want about whether this might change down the road, but Apple laid out good reasons why it is not planning an iOS-alike model for the Mac. In short, it would not be good for Apple, it would not be good for developers, and none of that is good for users. Makes sense to me.