Apple Silicon: Why developers don't need to worry about the transition from Intel-based Macs

Ditching Intel in favor of in-house chips, like the new M1, is a big move, but Apple has already built tools to make the transition easier. Here's what developers need to know about M1 and Big Sur.

First look at Apple Silicon

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.

SEE: Apple Silicon M1 Mac buying guide: 2020 MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro vs. Mac mini (TechRepublic)

On Nov. 10, Apple announced its first Apple Silicon chip for Macs, the M1, as well as a new MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and Mac 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.    

SEE: Meet the hackers who earn millions for saving the web, one bug at a time (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

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.

SEE: Video: Apple's first Silicon Macs debut next week, and we have some questions (ZDNet)

How to smoothly navigate 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. 

During its Nov. 10 event, Apple had testimonials from several developers already using macOS Big Sur and Xcode 12 on an M1 Mac, all of whom said it was a seamless, easy transition.

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. 

Once that program ends, which is likely to be soon with Big Sur becoming 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.

As mentioned above, developers who aren't operating at the level of the core architecture of macOS won't have any reason to be concerned about this transition: Universal 2 will do the heavy lifting, and you can carry on developing software the same way you have been.

In its Nov. 10 event, Apple said developing for Apple Silicon will feel very familiar to current iOS devs, making it clear that Apple's design philosophy is trending toward making the Mac and iPhone--two parts of the same larger ecosystem. With that in mind, developers who want to specialize (or continue specializing) in Apple should plan to learn more about developing for ARM chips, like the M1 and the chips in Apple's mobile devices.

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Image: Apple

Editor's note: This article was updated to include information about Apple's latest event.