Apple moving to ARM CPUs for MacBooks : implications for Windows, Linux, and desktop computing

Apple has announced that it will be moving its line of MacBook laptops from Intel-based CPUs to ARM-based CPUs. While this does not have any immediate impact on the Windows or Linux desktop computing markets, Apple’s move validates the platform and may give Microsoft an incentive to again experiment with Windows on ARM (RIP Windows RT 2012-2015).

This has implications for Linux desktop computing, which relies upon the availability of Windows-on-Intel “Wintel” hardware. The transition to ARM CPUs on Mac and Windows hardware may be accompanied by bootloader lockdown and the inability to install unsigned binaries or other operating systems.

Since a Mac person may have found this blog post by searching for “Mac” and “ARM” I should address their concerns first

For the 80% of consumers using 20% of software features, the Mac experience will not change.

No doubt, Adobe’s Creative Suite applications like Photoshop, and Document Cloud applications like Acrobat, will be ported and available on the first day the MacBook on ARM goes on sale. I would expect that the open source movement will embrace the platform and have applications like VLC and Tunnelblick ready as well. Some specialized applications will not be available right away.

There will be disappointing performance using Rosetta 2 or other Intel-to-ARM CPU emulators.

Advanced Mac consumers will likely keep at least 1 Intel-based Mac for power and compatibility for the first year or 2 of the transition, to run the Mac applications that are not yet available for the native ARM.

Advanced Mac consumers will find that Parallels is less effective in virtualizing Windows, as it will be emulating the Intel CPU at the same time as it hosts the guest operating system. Boot Camp, which allowed multiple-boot to Windows in the past, will not be available, even when Windows on ARM is again available.

Advanced Mac consumers will likely keep at least 1 Intel-based Windows computer for compatibility as they lose the ability to run Windows in emulation or multiple-boot.

Software piracy is likely to be more difficult, due to a lack of Mac-on-ARM software available to pirate, and may be blocked altogether by App store controls and binary signing.

Market conditions are different from 2015

Market conditions and customer expectations are different from 2015. The inability to install 3rd-party software directly without using an app store intermediary was a deal-breaker in 2015. Now, 12 years after the introduction of the iPhone, customers are comfortable using app stores to access software. It may not be a coincidence that Windows 10 now has a relatively usable App store with free-as-in-beer and sometime even free-as-in-Libre apps like VLC.

The App store can be used to stop piracy

This will have profound effects on the Mac desktop ecosystem going forward, and may validate a similar path to be taken by Microsoft going forward. If Apple is able to transition half of its unit shipments to ARM (I predict that Mac will retain Intel models at the high end for performance and binary compatibility for a few years), then Microsoft will follow.

Open source communities like Linux and BSD rely upon hardware from the Wintel hardware ecosystem.

Desktop Linux needs Wintel hardware. There are hobbyist solutions based on ARM, like the Raspberry Pi and the Pinebook, and these platforms get better with every release. The software is there: both Red Hat (Fedora) and Canonical (Ubuntu) now support AARCH64 ARM CPUs. However the performance is not there, the hardware tuning is not there. We need to encourage Pi and Pine, because they may be all we have in 10 years.

Linux was almost blocked from Wintel hardware in 2008 with the UEFI bootloader

In 2008, there was concern about viruses that would infect the master boot record (MBR). A solution called unified extensible firmware interface (UEFI) essentially locked the computer so that it could only be formatted by an installer that had a certificate issued to a software publisher for a fee. Whether intentional or not, this had the potential to prevent open operating systems like Linux from installing on this new generation of Wintel hardware. A technical and political solution was found, and the UEFI threat to open source software was neutralized.

Android hardware is a vision of this possible future

Android telephones are essentially Linux-on-ARM computers. Most of them have bootloaders that are “locked” and will only allow software with a specific digital signature to be installed on the phone’s hardware. There are some phones that are easier to “unlock” than others.

When Windows RT came out in 2012, it did not allow “unsigned binaries.” the only software you could install was via the RT app store. When the Mac introduced an app store, it initially set the default to off, allowing the installation of unsigned binaries. Later versions set this value to on by default, requiring consumers to find the option and disable it before “unsigned” software was permitted on the computer.

Consumers have been trained by the app stores on iOS and Android

Now that consumers have been trained to accept app stores as the intermediary between their computer and the software they wish to install, it is not hard to imagine a future where the app store is all that is left. To protect consumers from security threats, Apple (and later Windows) may use app-store-on-ARM to eliminate piracy, while carefully cultivating the sense of openness by allowing open source apps into the app stores, as is the case with iOS and Android.

What happens if the Windows-on-ARM hardware has a locked bootloader?

Losing the ability to install desktop Linux on Mac hardware is not a big deal, in numerical terms. From a Linux hacker’s point of view, the issue will be Wintel and its eventual replacement Windows-on-ARM (“WinARM.”)

The server hardware market will accommodate Linux-on-ARM. But what about the desktop and tablet hardware markets?

Let’s imagine the following hypothetical timeline:

2020. Macbook-on-ARM released to market, does not suck. Software available via app store only, no sideload of unsigned binaries, locked bootloader, like an iPhone or most Android phones.

2021. Windows-on-ARM released to market, does not suck. Software available via app store only, no sideload of unsigned binaries, locked bootloader, like an iPhone or most Android phones.

Linux hackers will be able to use Windows-on-Intel junk for 5 years

For the first 5 years, this will not be a problem in practical terms. Linux hackers will be able to find and reformat used Windows-on-Intel hardware. But after that?

Back to the Raspberry Pi and Pinebook

This brings us back to the Raspberry Pi, and the Pinebook. We have to hope that these projects succeed. They may be the only hardware platform we will have left, on which to install free-as-in-Libre software.

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