June 23, 2020

1284 words 7 mins read

Reflections on WWDC 2020

Yesterday was the keynote for WWDC 2020, the yearly Apple developer conference. While nothing in the keynote was that surprising, there were some interesting tidbits which signal solid direction in the way Apple is advancing. One of the most interesting “experiments” will be the long awaited convergence of mobile, tablet, & computing platforms.

Apple Silicon

The most exciting/interesting/challenging announcement was that of Apple Silicon. It was something the tech community saw coming, however it will be quite interesting to see how it actually plays out. ARM (what Apple Silicon uses) chips have much better performance-to-watt than Intel, so it’s likely we’ll see them utilized across the more portable hardware (MacBook Air etc) first. ARM isn’t nearly as powerful at the top end as Intel, so the high-end MacBook Pros are likely to remain unchanged and on Intel for some time.

Unlike Apple’s migration from PowerPC to Intel, or the general move from x86 to AMD64, the migration from Intel to ARM is going to cause a lot of unintended ripples (for good and bad) through the software community. For example, years ago Cloudflare compared Intel and Qualcomm built ARM servers and while on paper the ARM server looked extremely performant per watt, it fell very short on a number of specific cryptographic tasks. The average user would care about slow crypto a lot more than they realize - as almost everything done of the internet is encrypted today (or working towards it).

For the developer type, this change is going to be even more disruptive. The Mac Homebrew project leader said it best:

Not unheard of, but also not easy. Homebrew Linux already supports ARM (such as for Raspberry Pis). However it is on a “best effort” basis and there are no binary files available (so larger projects can take quite some time to install/compile).

On the bright side Apple isn’t dumb and knows a lot of software is going to need to be updated for proper ARM support. Not only for the average consumer, but software that is very popular to use on their platform.

For a long time ARM has been an extremly promising platform; that’s why it’s the defacto default for phones. However lack of mainstream support has held it back on the laptop/desktop platforms… until now. Apple’s move will forcibly improve ARM support on all platforms. Not that Linux and Windows don’t support ARM, they do, but the actual application software has always been a problem (see previously mentioned: Cloudflare crypto tests)

RIP OS X

Apple OS has a long and storied history. The last version of Classic Mac OS was v9 in 2001. Since the next major overhaul was OS 10… it was OSX. We’ve been on the OSX 10.0..10.1..10.N train for quite sometime. OSX 10.0 was released in 2001 and the name stayed until 2016 when it became macOS 10.12. Now as of 2020 the era of 10.X is over as macOS Big Sur is not 10.16 but 11.0.

Why this matters is best summarized:

Beyond just some developers, there are a lot of assumptions made about operating system version that will be broken by this change. It’s a very minor thing, but its going to be a tiny version of Y2K.

Platform Mergers

Years ago Microsoft tried to move over to a user interface based around “Tiles”. The idea was that depending on the platform you were on, be it phone, tablet, or desktop… you could simply vary the number of tiles visible. It was… not the most exciting choice and eventually they gave up on trying to provide a single user interface that worked on small screens with fingers, medium screens with a stylus, and large screens with keyboard/mouse. It is a very hard problem to solve and no one has successfully cracked it, so far.

However, it’s long been expected that Apple was going towards a merger direction and in Big Sur. The settings menu, pictured, is pulled almost directly from iOS/iPadOS. Now beyond some design changes, there is the fact that iPhones, iPads, and new Macs will all be running on the same line of ARM Chipsets. This allows apps & games from mobile to be played on Mac OS with basically no work from the developers. Lastly, there are a few under the radar features like PencilKit that seem to imply we’re going to see hybrid devices possibly as soon as this fall.

This all keeps in mind that for years iPadOS has been slowly working towards a more “desktop” like functionality with features such as keyboard & mouse support. Plus the iPad Pro is more powerful and expensive than the MacBook Air.

Hey They Stole It From Android/Apple

Every time a new iOS or new Android version comes out, there are new features that have been liberally “borrowed” from the competing platform. It doesn’t matter what version you look at, you’ll see the same news stories… it’s simply that some versions are more obvious than others. As a user of both platforms, this is good. iOS was well built to begin with and had a lot of features that would have killed Android if Google didn’t “borrow” them. Likewise Android has had some great innovations in its time. Part of the reason I’m currently on Android is that I like my widgets (a lot) and that I have only 1 home screen of applications - it’s just the way I prefer things. With iOS 14 I may very well be able to switch and keep 95% of how I want things.

All this “theft” is a win for the users. Especially when the competing platform shows that they can do it better (and let’s be honest, Apple’s widget demo does look very slick).

In the end…

At the end of the day, Apple continues to innovate. They aren’t a perfect companym but neither are Google or Microsoft. Maybe it’s because I work in security (and that’s made me a bit jaded), but I evaluate companies these days based on who’s “least terrible”. Apple’s unified platfrom (from hardware, to software, to accessories) has gotten them in a lot of trouble recently with bullying and/or anti-competitive behavior but frankly so has Google. However that same platform has given them amazing strength. It allows them to put out a tiny accessory like the AirPods that seamlessly integrates to mobile, tablet, & desktop along with providing firmware updates so that they’re better on all platforms. That level of integration simply isn’t possible for anyone else to achieve currently.

The big question is, Can Apple continue its winning streak and be slightly less of a walled garden? Very few are happy with any of the major tech companies’ antics, so just a little change can go a long way. This WWDC could be the start of a good thing. Or we may just be watching Apple turn into 90’s Microsoft.