Why Apple Wants the Same Apps to Run on iPhones and Macs

The company has been moving away from Intel’s chipset for years. Now it’s looking closer than ever to making the switch.

Photo: Apple

AApple recently announced that starting later this year, when you buy an app on any one of its platforms — iOS, tvOS, iPadOS, and macOS — you’ll be able to access the same app on any other device, without paying again (assuming the developer has opted in, rather than choosing to charge for access to the app on each platform).

This may not seem like a drastic change, but it puts Apple closer than ever to a move it’s been inching toward for a long time: turning macOS and iOS into a single unified platform.

Apple has for years been rumored to be developing a new line of MacBooks that are based on the same chipsets as its iPad and iPhone devices, called ARM architecture. A laptop that runs on this iPad/iPhone chipset would likely have longer battery life, produce less heat, and have no need for fans. Plus, because Apple already designs this type of chipset itself, putting it into the MacBook would remove the company’s dependency on Intel, which currently provides central processing units (CPUs) to Apple for its laptop and desktop computers.

Intel hasn’t innovated in a meaningful way in a decade, struck by ever-slipping timetables for its next-generation CPUs, and an ongoing struggle to mass-produce next-generation chipsets. Apple, meanwhile, has hired the former lead CPU architect of ARM, the company behind ARM processors, and made enough progress toward switching to ARM that both analysts and Intel expect the company to make the change in 2020 or 2021. Intel has been signaling as far back as 2011 that it expects to lose Apple as a customer, with Greg Welch, director of Intel’s Ultrabook group, telling CNET that year that the company “hears the same rumors” about an impending switch to ARM, and that his team must “endeavor to innovate so they’ll continue to look to us as a supplier.”

But moving to a new type of CPU is no easy feat. It would mean that all of the apps you use on macOS today simply wouldn’t function, because they’re built for a specific type of CPU architecture called x86, which has been used for the better part of 30 years in laptops and desktops. App developers would need to rebuild almost all of their apps from scratch.

What would make it easier is if consumers could replace their no-longer-functioning macOS apps with iOS apps. That’s what the feature announced last week will make possible.

It’s not the first step Apple has taken in this direction. The company began bridging the gap between its platforms in 2018 when it first showed off a tool, code-named Marzipan, that allowed developers of iPad apps to bring those apps to macOS with little effort. That tool was renamed Catalyst and debuted alongside macOS Catalina in 2019. While there’s still work involved for developers to port these apps, it’s significantly less than writing an app from the ground up, and far easier to maintain in the long haul.

With the debut of iPadOS, which separated the tablet-focused version of iOS into its own product for the first time, the iPad is already starting to function more like a computer. Apple quietly added mouse support to the iPad in iOS 13, and in a beta of iOS 13.4 this week, added full external keyboard support as well.

Apple isn’t the only company looking to move away from Intel’s CPU. Microsoft beat Apple to the punch in 2018 by adding ARM processor support to Windows, and just a few months ago it debuted its flagship Surface Pro X tablet, which uses the architecture.

While the Surface Pro X hits all the notes you’d look for in this type of device — a long battery, ultra-thin design, no fans — Microsoft is using a different approach called “emulation” to allow some older Windows apps to run on the device, which a reviewer panned as “so slow they may as well not.” That may get better with time, but it’s early days for the technology.

Microsoft is forced to use emulation rather than helping developers move their existing apps because Apple has something it doesn’t: a thriving set of platforms that aren’t its desktop-based operating system and which are already running on ARM, with an army of developers actively building great apps for them. All Apple needs to do is dangle enough of a carrot to have app developers bring their iOS apps to the desktop, and it can make the jump to ARM.

When Apple does eventually switch to ARM processors in its laptops, you’ll likely have an array of apps you already purchased on your other devices, waiting to be used — making it a delightful switch, rather than a painful transition.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify.

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