If there’s any lesson that Apple should learn about supporting apps that run on both X86 and ARM, it’s this one: Tell users which apps support which processor, and actively guide them toward the best experience.

It sounds obvious. But as Apple navigates its transition from Intel X86 Macs to Macs designed around its own ARM silicon, I can’t help but think of the things I wish Microsoft and Qualcomm had worked on to help facilitate the Windows on ARM experience. 

It starts with communication. When Asus launched its NovaGo laptop with a Qualcomm processor inside, we explained the pros and cons of the architecture, especially what it could or couldn’t do. Two years later, that article still feels necessary. Here’s how Microsoft stumbled along the way, and where Apple could go wrong too, unless it learns from those mistakes. 

Mark Hachman / IDG

Long battery life and always-on connections have sold Qualcomm-based PCs, but the software has always held it back.

Talking to developers but not consumers

No consumer wants to wade through developer documentation to understand why they should or shouldn’t buy a product. But that’s exactly what Microsoft asks consumers to do. How Windows emulates instructions coded for X86 processors into code ARM chips can understand are summarized in a dry support document on Microsoft’s site. That’s not good enough. Microsoft has never made any real effort to inform consumers of what the ARM platform entails, what its limitations are, and what options there are to overcome those limitations.

They’re big limitations, too. Let’s say you want to download the Zoom videoconferencing app on Microsoft’s Surface Pro X. You won’t find it on the Microsoft Store, forcing you to go to Zoom’s site.

What Zoom doesn’t tell you, of course, is that a Windows on ARM PC still can’t run a 64-bit app in emulated mode. So if a consumer tries to download the 64-bit version of the Zoom app on the Surface Pro X, they’ll be faced with a big, fat error message preventing its installation. That’s a roadblock between a consumer and an enjoyable experience, and my bet is it’s one of the biggest reasons why Windows-on-ARM PCs haven’t sold well.

apple 1 Apple

Apple seems to be headed down the same path. Like Windows on ARM, Apple also uses code to translate instructions written for X86 processors into instructions its ARM chips can understand. On the Mac, this code is known as Rosetta, the same translation software that Apple used to facilitate the transition from the PowerPC to X86. Now, Rosetta2 (or just Rosetta) is designed to take code written for X86 and enable it to “just work” for the Mac’s new ARM silicon.

Part of “just working” appears to involve “just waiting.” As Apple says in developer documentation now posted to its site, “the translation process takes time, so users might perceive that translated apps launch or run more slowly at times.”

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