Apple’s Radical MacBook Is One App Away From Success

Not everyone wants or needs Photoshop.

This is going to be an important phrase over the next few months and years. It could equally apple to 4K video editing suites, sprawling Integrated Developer Environments, 3D rendering software, or any other heavy lift application. But Photoshop appears to the be the standard bearer it is.

So, over the next few months as Apple starts to run down the road that Microsoft carved out last year, as ARM-based computing gains momentum in consumer laptops and desktops, as we see the differing philosophies from Cupertino and Redmond play out, just remember this. Not everyone wants or needs Photoshop.

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I’ve been using Microsoft’s Surface Pro X for the last few weeks. Launched last year, it is the first of Microsoft’s recent Surface devices with an ARM processor. Running x86 based applications requires emulation, and currently only 32-bit apps are supported; 64-bit support is expected to appear on the Windows Insider beta program next month with a consumer update early in 2021. Naturally native ARM applications are supported.

It’s become my go-to laptop for around the house, garden, and the occasional trip away. There are a handful of key applications that I need for my audio and radio work that, due to being 64-bit x86 apps will not run on the Pro X. And that’s fine. I need them for my work, which happens at my desk on a computer with a lot more power (and hardwired connections).

That’s not what the Pro X is designed for. It’s a device designed to be highly mobile, with built in 4G LTE connectivity, instant on capabilities, with long battery life, and to offer a set of apps tailored to that experience. Of course developers and power users are going to push it – that’s what we do – and when 64-bit x86 arrives my advanced editing and broadcast tools will be installed (for now I am more than happy to have Audacity for editing on the Pro X, and that runs fine).

What has saved the ARM-powered Pro X from the tsunami of compatibility issues that faced the first-generation Windows RT powered Surface is one single app; Microsoft’s Edge web browser, and its support for progressive web apps.

Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) are applications delivered through the web. They can be portrayed as ‘a web page running as a single app instance’ on your machine, but PWAs have far more capabilities to bridge the gap between a web page and a native app. They can work offline when needed, they can access background processing, access sensors and devices in the hardware, support push notifications, and generally hook into the core OS to provide for a better experience. 

You can also ‘roll your own’ in the Edge browser. When you are on a website you want as ‘an app’ the Edge menu offers ‘Install this site as an app’, and away you go. It’s a matter of a few moments to have a Facebook app, a Twitter app, a Discord app, a Metafilter app, or any other app that you need.

Look no further than Twitter. When Twitter returned to the Windows 10 ecosystem, it was with a PWA that you downloaded and installed from the Microsoft Store.

This is where the Pro X excels. So much of my work is in the cloud or through a browser that the Surface Pro X can happily take on the role of my ‘day-to-day’ computer. There are still notable ARM based applications that are full apps (such as Microsoft’s Office suite), and developers have that option, but for many ‘web first’ developers, PWAs are going to be the way forward.

This of course requires a really good web browser, and when the Pro X launched Edge was not it. Last October 2019 the Edge browser had to run under emulation. Painful for the individual and not at all welcoming for the ecosystem. Once Edge had a native ARM version, the Pro X was unlocked.

I’m looking forward to using Apple’s first macOS on ARM laptop. Much like the Surface Pro X, I’ll be looking to get a machine with the absolute minimum specs for a real-word test, and I’ll be looking to use it in much the same way as the Pro X. So much of modern life uses the web browser to access services online, but web browsers on their own are limiting in terms of access to the device. PWAs bridge that gap nicely, encourage developers to create better services in languages they are familiar with, and create a better experience for the user.

I’ll be looking carefully at that MacBook and the applications that are available out the box. I would presume that Apple’s core applications, including Safari, will all be available as native ARM apps. And I shouldn’t be concerned if the third-party services that I use do not have a macOS on ARM app ready, because just like the Surface Pro X I can run a progressive web app.

Naturally there’s a problem with this. Apple’s Safari web browser does not support PWAs.

Unless Apple locks down macOS on ARM with the same zealous gatekeepers that maintain the iOS and iPadOS app store, alternative browsers such as Microsoft’s Edge and Mozilla’s Firefox are going to be my first port of call, Their support for PWAs is a big part of that.

I’d add Google to that list, but there’s no ARM-compatible version of Chrome just yet for Windows 10 let alone macOS… and I’d note I’m assuming that ARM versions of Edge and Firefox will be available under macOS on ARM at launch. If the latter is not true, then a lot will depend on just how Apple’s emulation layer works. It may be that the macOS on Intel browsers run perfectly well (in which case so may the day-to-day apps I need), It may have some rough edges, or it may be limited to a small subset of older apps.

As the desktop computing world moves into the ARM world, developers cannot be relied upon to move their apps over to a new platform. Thankfully there is another way. Supporting Progressive Web Apps in any macOS browser unlocks the world.

Will Apple join everyone else in creating a more open world, or will it strike out on its own?

Now read more a key Windows 10 app moving from Intel to ARM…