Thoughts on macOS Big Sur & Apple Silicon

Apple's WDC 2020 keynote speech was run on Monday 2020-06-22 at 10am PDT (12pm CDT).  It was a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be, as it was obvious that the entire production was pre-recorded and streamed.  While it didn't have the same, familiar energy that is normally associated with Apple's WWDC Keynote and its live audience, Apple made up for it with a great deal of surprises and awesome goodies to look forward to.

I wanted to take a few moments to discuss a couple of new developments in both the macOS and Apple Hardware arenas. Both of these are kinda tied at the hip, as you can't have one, really without the other.

Apple Hardware

Apple has announced a second platform change for its Mac hardware.  The first platform change came about when it announced a change from the Motorola/IBM engineered PowerPC chip to Intel.  Over the past 15 or so years (yes, I’m rounding up a little…), Apple Macs (Mac Pro and Mac mini) and Mac Laptops (MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro) have created and enjoyed what I would call a symbiotic relationship on what is effectively a “universal” platform.  Both macOS and Windows can run on the same hardware.  Apple has been able to have Windows run natively via Apple’s Boot Camp.  Users have also been able to run Windows under macOS via both Parallels Desktop and VMWare Fusion.

Beginning this year, Apple will be producing Macs that use their own A**x chips.  This means that Macs will now use the same chips that Apple uses on its iPads.  Because they will use the same silicon chips, the line between MacBooks/ MacBook Pros just got that much thinner.  However, with Apple still saying they’re committed to both their desktop (and laptop) hardware, at least for now, I think it’s safe to assume, that for the immediate, the biggest benefit is to developers.  Now, they can write one app and it will run on iPhone (iOS), iPad (iPadOS) as well as the desktop (macOS).  They just need to make certain that their apps work on any and all screen form factors and sizes (which shouldn’t be too difficult…).

A Two Year Transition

With the switch to Apple Silicon, Tim Cook indicated that it will take two years to completely make the transition out of Intel chips.  In the meantime, Cook let us know that new Mac hardware with Intel chips are still on the Apple road map; and we should see at least one model released before the end of 2020.  He also let us know that macOS would continue to support Intel chips for at least two years.

I have a feeling the entire transition will actually take up to five (5) years due to Apple Care commitments that the company will be responsible for, three years after the production of the last model, Intel-based Mac they produce.  So while we may get new versions of macOS that will run on new, Intel based Macs until the end of 2022, I think you can likely plan on security updates and additional OS support for them at least until 2025.

Not every Mac will likely move to Apple Silicon (though I could be wrong here).  The Mac Pro will likely NOT move off of Intel’s Xeon processor line.  Apple’s Pro level notebooks, the MacBook Pro, may not move to Apple Silicon.  I would count on the MacBook, the MacBook Air and the Mac mini to move; but in truth, this is all speculation.  Apple hasn’t made its hardware road map public, and it’s not known if they will divulge their intentions publicly, either.  

However, the move to Apple Silicon is likely going to be much more graceful that the move from PowerPC to Intel.  Apple controls the destination architecture.  They will have a great deal more control on how the experience looks and feels, this second time around.  Apple learned a great deal from the bumpy Rosetta experience during the move to Intel; and Rosetta 2 will likely display a lot of “lessons learned” throughout the next few years.  With both big software houses, Microsoft AND Adobe already having development done (or nearly completed) for Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, as well, getting started with the software you need NOW at the beginning of the transition, is going to make it much easier to use the tools you need on the new platform now.  Thank you, Mac Catalyst!

Not All Sunshine and Daisies

While all of this sounds truly AMAZING, there are some real problems with all of this.  Apple originally announced that macOS Big Sur contained some really great developer and software translation tools that would help both developers and users make use of the tools they need to get their work done.  This includes new technologies called Universal 2, Rosetta 2 and Virtualization. Originally, it sounded as though Apple was building a Type 2 Hypervisor (again, like Parallels Desktop, VMWare Fusion, as well as VirtualBox) into the heart of Big Sur.  When they announced all of this 

on Monday, I was dumbfounded.  I was shocked and super excited. To have a hypervisor layer built into the core of macOS would make tasks like running Windows or Windows apps, natively, a heck of a lot easier.  It would make tools like Parallels Desktop, VMWare Fusion AND VirtualBox much more responsible and nimble. Virtualization would be natively supported by Apple.  It would be much easier to implement, wouldn’t require as much overhead and system resources, and make everything lightning fast!  Yay me! (Well, and YOU too, as I know there are a lot of folks that run Windows apps on their Mac through one of the three hypervisor tools I have linked to in this article.)

Unfortunately, I later found out, that this was not to be the case.

It’s now being widely reported that macOS Big Sur will NOT support x86 virtualization apps running Windows.  While this won’t be an issue for Intel-based Macs running Big Sur, it will be for all Apple Silicon-based Macs.  This means that applications like Parallels Desktop, VMWare Fusion and VirtualBox are living on borrowed time.  They will likely be end of life within the next couple of years.  What that does to the companies producing those tools isn’t fun to think about.

macOS Big Sur

macOS Big Sur is a huge change and step forward for the Mac operating system.  While it builds upon OSX and macOS 10.15 Catalina, its a completely new animal.  macOS Big Sur is the first version of macOS since March of 2001 that isn’t a 10.x variant.  macOS Big Sur will be version 11.0.

A lot of what’s happening with Big Sur is tied to Apple Silicon.  Without the newly engineered hardware, Big Sur on Intel is really just macOS 10.16.  There are a number of different UI changes that are pretty cool and some browser enhancements that are neat; but aside from those, the big news happens below the surface.  The good stuff can be found in Universal 2, Rosetta 2 and Virtualization.

So, aside from the new processor dependent underpinnings, most of the new modifications can be sorted into a couple different categories – Browser (Safari) enhancements and UI enhancements.  The new enhancements stratify into the following lists.

Browser (Safari) Enhancements

  • Customizable Start Page
  • Privacy Report
  • Website Translation
  • Website Previews
  • Industry Leading Battery Life
  • 50% Faster than Chrome
  • Message Effects

UI Enhancements

  • Redesigned Dock
  • All-new Notification Center
  • Guides in Maps
  • Look Around in Maps
  • Control Center for Mac
  • Streamlined App Design
  • Inline Replies in Messages
  • Enhancements and Changes to the Menu Bar

There are a few more things that might be interesting; but everything that you see in the graphic and bulleted lists, above, is all that Apple introduced during the WWDC Keynote Address.  Honestly, its more than enough, especially, again, when you pair it with the new ARM based chips Apple will be using to power Macs and macOS over the next two to five years.

I haven’t addressed iOS, tvOS, iPadOS or watchOS, which interestingly enough, will have its first ever public beta later this summer.  I’ll have more on these developments over the coming months.

I will also be appearing on the MobileViews Podcast this Sunday, June 28th.  We’ll be discussing this as well as other topics, in some detail.

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