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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: It’s All Puzzle Pieces but no Box Top

WWDC is just a few short weeks away, and while no one is quite ready to draft their predictions just yet, there is a lot to consider when thinking about what Apple could announce concerning the Mac.

Dating back to December of 2017, rumors have been swirling that Apple is planning to give iOS developers a way to get their apps up and running on macOS. Mark Gurman and others have reported that this project, dubbed Marzipan, will take the form of new tools for the Mac, which will supersede the Mac’s aging AppKit frameworks.

There are a million questions about this. Depending on your overall feeling about the state of the Mac, these questions can be hopeful or filled with dread.

Will these apps “feel” like the Mac apps we are used to today? Will developers be able to charge separately for iOS and macOS versions of their software? Is this going to usher in a new era of Mac productivity, or is the Mac doomed to being “just a big iPad?”

Earlier this month, Apple started warning users of 32-bit apps that they will require updating to run “without compromises” in the next version of macOS, presumably due this fall.

I expect we will hear more about what those compromises will entail for those of us whose 32-bit apps still take on essential roles in our workflows. Will these apps just need special permissions to run, like unsigned applications do today, or will macOS 10.14 bring something new and amazing to the table that they won’t be able to access?

Perhaps the biggest question about the future of the Mac is the report that Apple will begin a transition from Intel to ARM as early as 2020.

When Apple moved to Intel in 2006, it did so with grace. Developers could release “Universal” applications that ran natively on both PowerPC and Intel Macs, and several versions of Mac OS X included Rosetta to run PowerPC-only programs on Intel machines. The only real loss was that of the Classic environment, but my hunch is that very few people were still dependent on that by the time the first Intel Macs rolled off the assembly line.

I have no doubt that Apple can do the same for a transition to ARM, but there are a different set of tradeoffs on the table this time. In 2006, Apple was unable to build the products it wanted to with the PowerPC line of chips. We all wanted a PowerBook G5, but it just wasn’t possible.

While machines like the 12-inch MacBook could see incredible power and battery life gains by moving to an ARM chipset, we haven’t seen evidence that Apple’s in-house chip team has designed processors able to take on the Intel i7 and Xeon CPUs found in the company’s more powerful products.

Apple won’t release an ARM-based MacBook Pro that’s slower than the Intel ones they have now, so we can assume that either the company does have some amazingly-powerful ARM chips in the wings, or that this transition is going to take a lot longer than the ARM one did, with the product line split across two processor platforms for some time.

Like everything else in the Mac zeitgeist right now, that leaves on-lookers full of questions, but I think it’s safe to say that the move to 64-bit apps across the board, coupled with the cross-platform frameworks that could be coming with Marzipan, may be the first steps toward this transition, even if Apple doesn’t announce it for another couple of years. If Apple takes 2018 and 2019 to tell developers to modernize their apps or be left behind, it could be easier to move those apps to ARM Macs in the future.

Until WWDC is here, we just don’t know what’s coming for the Mac. It may be that 10.14 is another incremental release, and the only real news is the death of 32-bit apps, leaving several other shoes to drop later. Until then, we can just sort through the fragments of what we know and wonder about the future.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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