Ever since Apple announced it would transition to its own ARM products, there have been questions about the long-term future of Windows support. The adoption of x86 chips and the option to install Windows helped improve the Mac’s market share after Apple adopted Intel chips in 2006. According to a recent interview with multiple Apple executives, it’s on Microsoft to make Windows 10 support Apple’s new Macs.
The M1 already supports programs like Parallels or VMWare, but these would typically be used for emulating ARM-based applications, according to the interview. Asked specifically about Windows support, Apple’s Federighi suggested that end-users might be able to use a cloud version of the operating system, or that products like CrossOver, which uses an approach supposedly similar to WINE, could be an acceptable substitute. Ars Technica notes that CrossOver’s emulation approach “is not as consistent” as that deployed by other companies, implying that this may be an imperfect solution.
Federighi states that getting Windows up and running on Mac is “really up to Microsoft. We have the core technologies for them to do that, to run their ARM version of Windows, which in turn of course supports x86 user mode applications. But that’s a decision Microsoft has to make, to bring to license that technology for users to run on these Macs. But the Macs are certainly very capable of it.”
Federighi’s reference to Microsoft bringing its own Windows on ARM to license implies that there are restrictions on Microsoft’s side that currently curtail the distribution of Windows. At present, Microsoft only sells Windows on ARM to PC manufacturers, possibly to avoid end-user confusion from customers who inadvertently buy the wrong product, though it’s also possible the company has seen no point in making the product available for individual purchase. With Apple now offering its own ARM-based Mac, there’s an arguable point to creating a retail version of Windows on ARM.
One other point that the Apple executives raised is that the company will continue providing software updates for Intel-based Apple Macs. “If you buy an Intel Mac today, or if you already own one, you’re going to continue—just as you would have expected—getting free macOS upgrades for years to come.” This is good news as far as long-term compatibility is concerned, and it’s possible that Apple intends to nudge people who need Windows support towards Intel systems for the next 6-12 months. That’s only a short-term solution, though. Long run, Mac users who also rely on Windows will require some kind of software support via Parallels or Microsoft itself.
It’ll be interesting to see if Microsoft responds publicly or if it highlights aspects of Apple’s software ecosystem that make supporting the M1 more complicated than Apple is acknowledging. I’m not accusing Apple of obfuscating the situation — I have no specific knowledge there — but it’s downright common for two companies in a tangle over support problems to claim that it’s the job of the other developer to make everything work. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Microsoft come back with its own explanation, especially if Redmond doesn’t really want to support Windows on ARM on Mac in the first place.
Microsoft is in a bit of a strained position, here. On the one hand, Apple’s M1 is easily the biggest ARM chip to break into computing and the CPU most likely to challenge x86 to the performance crown. On the other, none of Microsoft’s existing partners in the Windows on ARM ecosystem can match the M1’s performance. Apple’s ARM cores are faster than any of the mainstream ARM CPUs that other vendors ship in mobile products.
Microsoft won’t want to alienate every other Windows on ARM customer in the name of winning Mac support, especially if it believes Apple’s M1 could be the beginning of a future in which ARM slowly supplants part of the current x86 market in the long term. Microsoft will need vendor support to keep its own software as the center of any desktop or laptop x86 -> ARM transition. The degree to which Microsoft supports these customers may also depend on whether solutions like Parallels are capable of serving as a drop-in replacement for native Windows support.
Support for 64-bit x86 application emulation is baked into the latest versions of WoA shipping to the Insider Ring, as is a native version of Microsoft Teams. We’d love to see somebody get Windows on ARM running on the M1, if only to see how Apple’s Rosetta 2 emulation engine compares to WoA emulation.
For now, Mac users who require Windows should plan to keep their existing systems in-service until such time as this question has been hammered out. Apple clearly isn’t concerned about the issue and believes the M1 silicon it has developed will create enough meaningful product differentiation to drive consumer interest and developer engagement. Hopefully, Microsoft will move to bring Windows on ARM over to the M1, or solutions like Parallels will prove good enough to address the vast majority of use cases.
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