Ditching Intel in favor of in-house chips is a big move, but Apple has already built tools to make the transition easier.
Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) 2020 contained a bevy of announcements, none larger than the news the company is ditching Intel chips in favor of its own new architecture called Apple Silicon. Apple Silicon is an extension of the Arm-based chips used in the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch and finally brings Macs, the last component of Apple’s hardware ecosystem, under the same design umbrella.
“This will also create a common architecture across all Apple products, making it far easier for developers to write and optimize software for the entire Apple ecosystem,” Apple said in a press release.
On Nov. 10, Apple announced its first Apple Silicon chip for Macs, the M1, as well as a MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and MacBook Mini powered by the M1. With the new chip and a generation of Macs available built without Intel, Apple has finally made the transition more than just talk: It’s real and happening now.
Developers may have concerns about this transition. Apple Silicon, built on ARM architecture, is going to be different than Intel chips, right? Luckily, Apple has thought of that, and the latest versions of Xcode (Xcode 12) and macOS (Big Sur) will make the transition mostly invisible for those used to developing for Intel-based Macs.
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How Apple plans to transition to Silicon
There’s a fundamental difference between Apple Silicon and Intel chips that means software built to run on one of them won’t run on the other without some form of cross-compatibility app. That’s why iOS and iPad and iPhone apps don’t run natively on macOS (because Macs use Intel), and why lots of Chromebooks can run Android apps natively (because many use Arm chips).
Apple is planning a two-year transition period to Apple Silicon, during which time it plans to continue to produce Intel-based Macs, update Intel-based operating systems, and support Intel machines. Also, Apple said it plans to support Intel-based Macs for years to come.
To avoid making millions of Macs obsolete at once, Apple needs to support both Intel and Apple Silicon, which it plans to do with familiar tools. Universal 2 will make updated apps automatically support both chipsets, and Rosetta 2 will allow nonupdated apps to run in Apple Silicon environments.
The process of updating apps to run on Apple Silicon will be simple if it works properly: Xcode 12 is “universal app ready,” according to Apple.
“When you open your project in Xcode 12, your app is automatically updated to produce release builds and archives as Universal apps,” Apple said. The process happens behind the scenes, with Xcode producing binary “slices” for both Intel and Apple Silicon before recompiling them into a single app package for uploading to the Mac App Store.
Apple said that most developers will be able to get their apps running on Apple Silicon in a matter of days. Ideally, minimal troubleshooting will be required, but Xcode 12 has all of the necessary bug hunting tools baked right in.
How to get a jump-start on the Apple Silicon transition
Transitioning from Intel to Apple Silicon is a lot like framing a house with either wood or steel. Apple, the framers, are taking care of the steel or wood frame, while developers are putting in the plumbing, hanging the drywall, and making the house livable. If things are done right, the material used to frame the house doesn’t matter to the plumber, drywaller, painter, roofer, or resident: It all ends up looking the same once things are finished.
Members of the Apple Developer Program can get a jump-start on the transition by applying for the Universal App Quick Start Program, which gives access to beta forums, an early version of Big Sur, a Mac Mini with all the tools needed to build and recompile apps for Apple Silicon, and Universal app support from Apple.
There won’t be much need to sign up for the program soon, though: Big Sur, with its cross-compatibility features, will be generally available on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, and the first M1-powered MacBooks will be hitting the streets on Nov. 17, 2020. At that point, developers can start working on getting apps in Universal shape on their own.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to include information about Apple’s latest event.