Apple is about to start making laptops a lot more like phones

A whole new era in the world of Mac

A laptop and phone.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Pavlo Stavnichuk/iStock, nadia_bormotova/iStock, Aerial3/iStock)

After years of complaints about Apple's MacBooks — their unreliable keyboards or subpar performance — the tech giant finally seemed to get something right this past year. Their new 16" MacBook Pro hit all the right notes, and was called "the best Mac in years."

So it's somewhat surprising the company may be about to upend things completely. Recent speculation from reliable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo suggested that Apple will begin to shift its laptops from chips made by Intel, long the industry standard for desktop computing, to chips similar to those it already designs itself for the iPhone and iPad. If that happens — and there's good reason to believe it will — it will usher in a whole new era in the world of the Mac.

Apple, however, isn't alone in this. Microsoft has been working hard to make Windows work on ARM chips, the same cellphone and tablet technology Apple relies on. It too represents an enormous shift. Because almost all desktop software on both Windows and Mac, from the small utility in your taskbar to ubiquitous professional tools like Photoshop, is built to run on Intel chips, this change is no small task.

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So what gives? Why are these two tech giants set to change the basic way their tech functions? For one, shifting over to ARM will make laptops better in the long run. And for another, it may simply be inevitable: now that the smartphone is dominant, the laptop has to become subservient to it.

Rumors of Apple shifting over to its own ARM chips have been around since the iPad Pro first launched. But there's more reason to take them seriously now. For years, the most clear difference between a laptop and a smartphone wasn't the arcane architecture they ran on, but much more simply, power. In terms of sheer computing oomph, laptops were head and shoulders above smartphones. Today, the chip in the Apple iPad Pro is about on par with a powerful Intel chip, and mobile tech is getting more powerful all the time. That means the performance barrier, at least for mainstream computing, is mostly overcome.

That in turn also means that all the other benefits of ARM chips could come to the MacBook or other laptops. ARM tech is more efficient, which makes battery life significantly better (think of the way that an iPad can stay in standby for a week with very little battery loss). It also means less need for cooling: no noisy fans to fire up when your laptop is under strain.

The final piece of the puzzle is also the most modern one: connectivity. It is easier and simpler to integrate cellular modems into ARM chips, which means that a laptop with a fast, always-on wireless connection will be far easier to produce.

Put it all together and it becomes clear why Apple and Microsoft want to do this: you get longer-lasting, cooler, more efficient devices that can also have a persistent connection to the web. It's all the advantages of a smartphone, built into a laptop.

That's not to say there aren't real challenges. The main one: almost all the software that professionals rely on is still coded for Intel chips. It will involve a significant amount of work and investment to move things over to ARM. Just ask Microsoft, who have been trying since the early 2010s to finally move their own Office suite over to ARM (they finally got there last year).

But Apple in particular isn't a stranger to those kinds of transitions. It made the shift over to Intel from PowerPC chips in the mid 2000s, and it wasn't easy. Yet it also was ultimately the right move: unifying the underlying tech not only erased the compatibility barrier between Macs and PCs, it also made Apple laptops better.

And it's exactly that kind of weight or pressure of an ecosystem that is really at the root of this inevitable change. Smartphones and tablets completely dwarf the Mac and PC market. Almost all innovation in both hardware and software is happening in mobile on ARM. By shifting laptops over to the same architecture, Apple, Microsoft, and the legions of app developers can streamline how they create things, making sure that the best apps don't just pop up on smartphones, but can be on all the hardware we use.

Both Microsoft and Apple have already started the transition. Microsoft has Windows on ARM, and is continuing work on it. Meanwhile, Apple has Project Catalyst which helps developers transfer apps from mobile over to the Mac, laying the groundwork for the eventual complete transition.

In terms of hardware, what I expect is for Apple to introduce a smaller, lighter lower-end ARM MacBook aimed at those with light computing needs. That will sell users on the benefits of the change — long battery life and solid performance — while also giving everyone, including Apple, the chance to catch up for the higher-end chips and software. The transition will be years-long, and it makes sense to start at the mid-end with early adopting consumers who nonetheless don't have demanding needs.

That, after all, is the path that Microsoft has already taken with its ARM-based Surface Pro X — a device that is also an instructive example of why this is happening at all. The Pro X is lighter and faster than its Intel cousins, and also more portable, connected, and desirable. It still has its flaws for now, but it's also clearly the future. Yes, the change is going to be a bit messy and hard, but it's also an inevitable one — and one that we'll eventually all be better off for, too.

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