Illustration for article titled Apples Walled Garden Could Grow Higher

Graphic: Gizmodo

Apple has finally announced its long-rumored transition away from Intel chips and will now make its own homegrown CPUs based on the ARM architecture for future Macs. The company’s goal is to shed its dependence on Intel so that it can control even more of its production and development pipeline. It’s an interesting move at an even more interesting time, given that Apple CEO Tim Cook has also finally agreed to testify on Capitol Hill in a Big Tech antitrust hearing. Just last month, the European Union opened its own antitrust probe into Apple and its App Store. The company is being investigated and criticized for its near-perfect execution of vertical integration more than ever before, just as it’s taking its biggest step toward its grand vision of vertical integration in nearly 15 years.

Profits are the likely motivation behind Apple’s biggest moves—for any publicly-traded company’s biggest moves—even when those moves have altruistic outcomes like improving customer privacy. And Apple’s main profit driver is vertical integration: the practice of keeping as many elements of a supply chain in-house as possible to drive down costs, increase revenue, and maintain a hold on the markets it dominates.

“Apple hasn’t been very successful over the past five years with the Mac and most of the innovation has come from Windows vendors,” analyst Patrick Moorhead told Gizmodo. “I think Apple sees vertical integration as a way to lower costs and differentiate. We’ll see. It’s a risky and expensive move for Apple, and right now I’m scratching my head on why Apple would do this. There’s no clear benefit for developers or for users, and it appears Apple is trying to boost profits.”

The company stubbornly clung to vertical integration way back in the ‘80s. Upstart computer makers would clone Apple and IBM machines. Apple sued at least one company completely out of business, while IBM clones turned men like Michael Dell into billionaires. Apple’s star briefly declined. Yet over time, Apple’s 30-year gamble on vertical integration has turned it into the richest company in the U.S. It’s a behemoth and produced real concrete proof that if you’re big enough than vertical integration can be a boon for your bottom line.

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Apple’s strategy has become more appealing to its Big Tech rivals. Microsoft attempted extreme vertical integration in the ‘90s by pushing Internet Explorer on all Windows users in an effort to kill Netscape. It was eventually stopped by a landmark antitrust suit. Now the company hews closer to Apple’s model, while aggressively playing nice elsewhere. It’s embraced GitHub and Android, but Windows 10 features will just work better on Surface stuff because Microsoft built both the operating system and the hardware it runs on. Windows and Xbox now play remarkably well together for the same reason.

In Microsoft’s case, that integration has meant more minor, but still annoying, issues, including the fact that Windows and Xbox integrated better with the now-defunct Mixer streaming service than with the more popular Twitch. And for Apple, that integration has resulted in antitrust probes and a growing, vocal number of grumbling developers.

This is why the naked money grab some might consider Apple’s ARM move to be might not make much sense. ARM processors have shown remarkable improvements over the years, and even the potential to rival some of the fastest chips made by Intel and AMD, but they don’t have the same reputation for speed. Microsoft’s own ARM-based initiatives, which include making the CPUs run well on Windows 10 devices, have resulted in gorgeous and thin computers with incredible battery life and absolutely not-great performance.

Apple needs something special if it wants to compete with Intel and AMD, both of which have been building chips for laptops and desktops for far longer than Apple. The magic sauce could be Apple’s current command of the ARM architecture. The company makes really, really good ARM-based CPUs for its iPhones and iPads, which is something I’ve heard even the most die-hard x86 fans admit. The company knows how to make a chip for mobile, and if early leaked benchmarks and our own suppositions bear out, Apple could not only compete with Intel and AMD in battery life and performance, but may well surpass them.

Only the transition from Intel to ARM can’t be done in a vacuum—as much as I’m sure Apple wishes it could. While the company is the textbook example of vertical integration done well, it still relies on other companies, and developers, to keeps its products moving off shelves. Back in the ‘80s, when Apple famously refused to allow more affordable Mac clones on the market, many developers balked at creating software for Mac devices. It didn’t make financial sense to spend millions of dollars developing for a platform that only reached a small fraction of personal computer users. The same could be said for new Macs if Apple doesn’t convince developers that the transition is beneficial for them, too.

Developers and ARM on macOS

ARM is a completely different architecture from the x86 one used by the Intel-based Macs Apple currently sells. It relies on RISC, a totally different instruction set that processes code very differently from x86’s CISC. Apple knows this—there’s a reason it launched Catalyst back in 2019 with macOS 10.15 Catalina and has worked to get iOS apps running seamlessly on macOS. The iOS and iPadOS stores have millions of excellent apps that should work out of the box with Apple’s new ARM-based Macs—no porting required.

“With all of this investment in the Mac, it now has a vibrant future ahead,” iOS developer Steven Troughton-Smith tweeted about the change. “The OS was in limbo for a long time, but now feels like it will forge ahead as part of the iOS platform family—not an also-ran, but a superset.”

But if you’ve used an iOS app like Instagram on your iPad, you know that there is always a little porting required. iOS and iPadOS both have touch-based UIs, and applications running on those devices are designed with that in mind. Simply porting stuff directly over to macOS doesn’t just look sloppy, but can lead to avoidable annoyances.

iOS devs will still need to do some tweaking, and current macOS devs will need to put some work to get apps running natively on ARM-based Macs—even with Apple’s help. And some developers just don’t think that’s worth it.

“This will, essentially, kill multiplatform for Macs. It’s already barely worth supporting them, but this will likely kick that well into Not Worth It territory,” SkateBIRD developer Megan Fox tweeted after the announcement.

Fox was referring to games and other apps developed for multiple platforms, including the Mac. Typically, Apple sees support for multiplatform apps eventually, and sees support for games only when the game producers shell out for a port.

Fox went on to point out the math of porting won’t make sense for a lot of devs.

“The support cost VS the income from Mac is hilariously bad already,” she said in a follow-up tweet. “iOS pays better, so it makes more sense, but it also only pays if you’re of the chosen devs with good contacts.”

She’s talking about Apple’s tendency to work with developers of apps it likes. If you’re lucky, Apple will like your app idea so much it will buy it. A beloved game might be included in Apple Arcade. If you’re unlucky, Apple will like your app idea so much it will “be inspired” by it, release something similar, and then reject your app from the store. And if you’re rejected from the store you’re effectively rejected from the billions of iPhones available worldwide.

“If you are a coder, you are Apple’s competitor,” tweeted one dev.

That brings us to Apple’s rigid control of its App Store. The walled garden has its benefits: There are fewer apps sucking up your data, and at least a little quality control compared to the Wild West that is the Google Play Store. But that control also means Apple can destroy whole categories of apps with a change. When it banned vape-related apps, for instance, the weed vape company Pax had to create a separate web app to support its devices.

Not only can the company banish whole categories of apps from its store, but it takes a cut of all iOS app revenue. When Basecamp tried to circumvent the revenue-sharing policy with its email app, Hey, by offering a subscription on the web outside of the iOS app, Apple refused to allow the developer to fix bugs in the version of the app available in the App Store. Apple eventually changed course and gave devs a little more control over the app review process, but not before angering many developers who feel like Apple is inconsistent and unfair. Other companies, like Amazon, just won’t allow you to buy digital materials, like ebooks and comics, on iOS. Amazon would rather make life inconvenient for iOS users than pay Apple a 30% cut.

Unlike iOS, macOS developers have always been able to skirt around using the Mac App Store. I can go to directly to a developer’s site for most apps and just buy what I want outside of the App Store. But how long will that continue in the future macOS landscape, particularly if the main people developing for the operating system are doing so alongside their iOS and iPadOS builds? Apple has repeatedly said it has no plans to turn macOS into a walled garden, as has always been the case with iOS and iPadOS, but it might effectively have done just that with the ARM switch.

It’s left developers who work outside the App Store revenue-share model wondering: “tl;dr: what fresh hell is this,” tweeted audio app developer Chris Randall.

“Part of the problem is that our current model is predicated on the existence of a walled garden around iOS software, creating a secondary income,” he said in his thread. “Apple are now expanding that wall to include our primary income source.”

The company also effectively removed the ability to sideload other operating systems on Mac devices with the transition to ARM. Currently, if you own an Intel-based Mac, you can load up the Boot Camp app and create a Windows 10 or Linux partition on your device. Boot Camp handles all the tricky stuff, like the bootloader and necessary drivers, and makes launching non-Mac operating systems pretty easy. That’s useful if you are in a business that has Windows-only applications, or if you’re a developer and want to quickly check how something works on both Mac and Windows.

Boot Camp won’t be available for ARM-based Macs. Technically you’ll still be able to dual-boot, but it won’t be an easy feat. Neither Apple nor Microsoft has plans to make Windows 10 function on Apple ARM CPUs. Whatever the future of dual- and triple-booting looks like on Apple ARM Macs, it won’t be turn-key—and that could hamper adoption in the developer community.

With the move to ARM, Apple might not have built a walled garden, but the company has definitely erected some massive topiaries. Hopefully, when Congress questions Cook on the subject, its members will spend less time asking why iPhone battery life always sucks and more time asking about how Apple’s tight control over its App Store and its supply chain is potentially anti-competitive.

There are some things to be hopeful for if you’re a macOS fan, though. Apple says it will support Intel-based devices for “years to come,” which could mean anything from the five years it supported previous CPU architectures after a transition, to the 10+ years the company supported my mom’s 13-year-old MacBook. And even Patrick Moorhead said he didn’t see Apple totally dropping Intel, particularly for Mac Pros, which finally saw a hardware refresh after languishing for six years.

“I could see Apple keeping Intel around for the highest performance models as a backup,” he told me.

Fingers crossed.

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