Every year around this time, developers for Apple’s various platforms normally gather en masse to hear about the intended roadmap for Cupertino’s hardware and software over the coming months.
Usually there are a couple of surprises, and people travel from all over the world to watch the Keynote speeches from the various Apple executives. For many years, Apple was the outlier for being both a hardware and software company, with the majority of the profit coming from selling computers, phones and tablets.
In 2020, things had to be a little different. There were no attendees. No jamboree of media and enthusiastic fans. Instead, the Worldwide Developer Conference took to Apple TV for the “live” main event in a slickly produced, socially-distant film.
There were a few standout moments, and embodied the ethos of Steve Jobs on a number of levels.
Of course, the next iterations of macOS, tvOS, iPadOS and iOS were front and centre. They are all natural progressions of the previous versions, nuanced and refined – and all available as betas for members of the developer community. watchOS had a few tricks up its sleeve, including a nifty smart hand-washing mode that uses the watch’s accelerometer and microphone to judge whether the wearer is using soap and water, and subsequently display a countdown to make sure of a hand-wash well-done. Very clever. Also announced was the sleep measurement function that the hardware has long been capable of, just never enabled.
But the killer announcement – and one that’s circled the Applesphere for a long time on the web – was the transition from Intel processors to Apple’s own CPUs. This wasn’t and shouldn’t be a surprise given that all iPhones, iPads and Apple Watches are powered by Apple chips. These are based on the RISC (reduced instruction set computer) architecture pioneered by a company called ARM Holdings. In a quirk of history, Apple actually helped to found this company in the 1990s with Acorn Computer, and the first designs were manufactured in the Archimedes desktop computer that was particularly popular with British-based schools since it was entirely backwards compatible with the hearty BBC Model B Microcomputer. Apple’s well-documented financial instability later in the decade meant that it sold its stake, even though it had been the brains behind the first proper PDA, the Apple Newton.
The transition to “Apple Silicon” as they were calling it, is envisaged to take 2 years. And in an almost complete replication of the PowerPC to Intel switch, Universal Binaries will once again be used, plus software (really an instruction set) called Rosetta to transparently translate Intel code to Apple Silicon compatibility. It’s envisaged that performance will take a 20% hit in doing so for older software. One thing conspicuous by its absence, however, was any mention of using virtualisation software on the new chips. As this is being written, three OSes are running simultaneously on Apple hardware, including Windows 10 Pro. This is used for legacy apps that will never be ported to macOS, and some design/audio/video professionals and companies will need to have a think about their own application roadmap ahead. All that said, Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, did say that Intel-powered hardware would continue to be supported for some time, and that new hardware with Intel architecture is still being developed.
So there you have it – a lot to think about certainly for the next 18 months. Despite all the great announcements, however, the internet did decide to focus on the small-fry iOS 14 home screen evolution. C’est la vie.