We’re still digesting Apple’s WWDC announcements from last week thanks to a Covid-forced all-online format that crammed a lot of information into a lot of sessions.
The iPhone is getting widgets and an app drawer (thanks, Windows Phone) but the Mac is also ringing the changes. Apple has gone all in with an overhaul for the Mac that includes Apple’s own chips and macOS 11.0 – moving on from OS X after twenty long years.
But what do the visual and behind the scenes changes hint at, and will they spell a new dawn for gaming on the Mac?
One of the details of the announcements for macOS Big Sur is that it will be able to natively run iOS apps on Apple’s forthcoming Macs that use the company’s own silicon. This means that for the first time Apple will fully support running full iPad apps right there on your Mac, downloadable from the App Store. It’s an unprecedented admittance from Apple that the iPad and the Mac are converging, with hardware and software built around the same frameworks.
The way that macOS Big Sur will look is a clue to the marriage. Something that doesn’t bother us much but seems to have riled all of the internet is Apple’s subtle changes to the Mac’s iconography, adding shadow and a hint of the old skeuomorphism or early iOS back into the icons. We don’t mind too much what the OS looks like so long as the underlying changes improve the day-to-day use and enjoyment of the platform.
The changes to windows and menus are a clear nod to the iPad’s software. Elements will be more translucent and icons seem to be positioned every so slightly further apart as they are on iOS, leading to the speculation that Apple not only wants you to run iPad apps on a Mac, but that you might even soon be able to buy a Mac with a touchscreen.
This is something we never thought Apple would do. Ask us two weeks ago and we’d say that same. But post-WWDC we now have a macOS 11 that can run iPad apps (on the right hardware) and looks more like iOS than ever. That’s a pretty clear indication that Apple sees the two platforms converging. If Apple didn’t want you to use iPad apps on the Mac, it wouldn’t have done this. A touchscreen is the next logical step. Apple is big enough to twist the narrative to avoid having to answer the tough questions about this 180-turn in strategy.
It’s on Apple’s ARM-powered Macs that we’ll see the fusion happen. The company says the first machine with its own chip will drop this year, even though new Macs with Intel chips are also coming. It’s a kick in the teeth for Intel, with Apple introducing its updating Rosetta translation environment program that’s designed to port software designed for Intel architecture over to Apple’s new silicon.
Gaming the system
Apple showed an example of Rosetta in action during the WWDC keynote with Shadow of the Tomb Raider running on a Mac with an Apple-made chip inside. While a 2018 game running on cutting-edge Apple silicon in 2020 is not amazing in itself, the fact that the game ran smoothly and rendered without much fuss as a ported Intel app title will shine a small light at the end of the tunnel for anyone who dreams of AAA gaming on a Mac someday.
The Mac has got away with not being a gaming platform. Apple die hards don’t seem to care – there’s an Xbox or PlayStation to solve that. But theoretically, high-end games really should be at least playable on the platform fi the hardware is technically good enough, and it could be that Apple’s move to its own silicon will spell the dawn of this. After all, the pure computing power of the latest generation of iPad Pro enabled by complete control of the hardware and software is technically making its way to the Mac.
Apple is unlikely to hold up gaming on its new Mac chips as a reason to switch, but it’s a piece of the puzzle.
So, Apple announced a lot of changes but, in typical fashion, a lot is still unclear. The first ARM-powered mac will be out this year, but we don’t know if it’ll be an entry-level MacBook or a high-end desktop.
The fact Apple is still going to release Intel Macs despite clearly showing the Mac’s future is in Apple chips, suggests Apple will continue to sell its cheaper MacBooks with Intel chips to regular consumers who really don’t care while wooing early adopters to its own silicon on high-end desktops.
This will become clearer when we get our hands on whatever machine Apple puts out. We’ll be booting up iPad apps and getting used to a new UI design and hey, maybe we’ll finally be using a touchscreen to do it all. It’s unclear if high-end games will be coming along for the ride, but it all spells the beginning of a fascinating and confusing new chapter for the Mac.