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Macintosh Forks – jj
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Macintosh Forks

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Jean-Louis Gassée

by Jean-Louis Gassée

After years of neglect, Apple has Finallyâ„¢ given some attention to its Mac line of products, from laptops to minis to desktops.

Last week, Apple simplified — normalized would be a better word — its laptop lineup by discontinuing the 12″ MacBook.. I’m sorry and not sorry to see it go; given the overall shrug from the kommentariat, I’m not alone in this sentiment. I wanted to like the MacBook for its small size, light weight, and good quality screen, but I became disappointed by its fruit fly battery life and intermittent, hard to reproduce keyboard problems.

The 12” MacBook had long ago been usurped by the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro as the de rigueur laptops for connoisseurs and professionals, but even those two models have languished until recently. Last year, the Air was finally upgraded to a much-needed higher definition Retina display and Touch ID access module, and was updated again with display and processor tweaks; and all Pros now have a Touch Bar.

So Mac laptops just got simpler and saner. We hope to see updates at decent intervals and — who knows? — maybe Apple will put an end to the keyboard controversy by introducing a new keyswitch mechanism, thus returning to the old happy days of unremarkable but reliable MacBook typing.

After four long years of neglect, the Mac mini was charged with new life in late 2018. The new machine has been very well-received; it’s “a real workhorse” in applications where modularity is a must, where neither a laptop nor an all-in-one iMac will do. The Tom’s Guide review even found a way to appreciate the wait:

“One major benefit of Apple’s four-year gap between updates is that there’s no confusion about the new Mac mini — it’s better than any of its predecessors. And if you’ve been looking for a chance to upgrade from an older model, there’s no reason to wait.”

This gets us to the most anticipated — and most overdue — update in the Mac line: The Mac Pro.

Two months ago, the unloved 2013 Mac Pro a.k.a. “trashcan” was consigned to the Never Again shelf. The embarrassing, “Because We Can” design was widely mocked, the sleek but constrained shape contributing to the machine’s deadly flaw: lack of modularity and exandability. And Apple knew it. As reported by John Gruber in a Daring Fireball post from 2017, Phil Schiller, Apple SVP of Marketing, was moved to apologize:

“The current Mac Pro, as we’ve said a few times, was constrained thermally and it restricted our ability to upgrade it. And for that, we’re sorry…”

The new 2019 Mac Pro, previewed at the recent Worldwide Developers Conference and available later this year, is a completely different beast, modular to the extreme. It has an open chassis, 1.3KW power supply, PCI Express expansion slots, 1.5 TB RAM, a 28-core Intel processor…and even add-on wheels (a first for Apple). The utmost opposite of the trashcan, this is a “Because You Can” product dedicated to push the upper limit of pro users’ power.

Great…but where is the forking mentioned in today’s note title?

To explore this we need to reintroduce the rumored transition away from Intel x86 processors to Apple Axx chips derived through an architecture license from the ARM family.

For two or three years now, benchmarks have made it abundantly clear that the chips inside our iPhones could power Macs. But which Macs?

Intuitively, the transition would start with entry-level Macs whose power consumption is closest to iOS devices. Perhaps we’ll even see the resurrection of the MacBook that was recently put to pasture. A smaller, less power hungry Axx chip would be a nice engine for a small, light laptop.

Contemplating Apple’s track record designing complicated silicon, one can easily imagine the company coming up with higher-power chips aimed at more ambitious desktop machines.

How far up the product line? Certainly not all the way to the new Mac Pro. Apple’s silicon work focuses on hundreds of millions of chips and battery-saving designs; the Pro’s sales volume is likely to be in the tens of thousands, not the iPhone’s hundreds of millions. For the Pro, Intel’s high-end designs will be economically more attractive, sharing the investment with other Intel clients.

If (or, more likely, when) the Mac switches to Axx chips, the change won’t be instantaneous. Some Macs will become powered by Apple’s home-grown CPU chips, others, like the Mac Pro, will remain on x86 processors. And thus we’ll have a fork of macOS. Two forks, actually: A sliding break as the transition progressively moves from low end machines up the product line, and then a permanent “fork ceiling” that separates the extreme-end Mac Pro from its lower-powered siblings.

As for the software transition, Apple has proved many times that it could easily handle processor changes, the latest example being the PowerPC to Intel 2006 move.

Porting macOS to one of Apple’s Axx chips shouldn’t be confused with Apple’s effort to bring iPad apps to the Mac discussed with the Catalyst project revealed at the 2019 WWDC conference. With Catalyst, the idea isn’t to change Mac processors but to bring to the Mac the more abundant iOS applications library. The huge iOS installed base, now numbering in the hundreds of millions, has attracted developers in proportionately larger numbers than the Mac did. That imbalance is what the Catalyst project intends to help with.

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PS: Last week’s Monday Note generated much on-line discussion. The dust now settling, you might like to look at Charles (@charlesarthur) Arthur’s even-handed examination of Jony Ive’s work.

— JLG@mondaynote.com

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