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What Apple could learn from Microsoft’s mistakes with Windows over ARM

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 that 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 ease 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 could not do. Two years later, this article still feels necessary. Here’s how Microsoft stumbled along the way, and where Apple might go wrong too, unless it learns from those mistakes.

Samsung Galaxy Book S out working Mark Hachman / IDG

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

Talk to developers, but not consumers

No consumer wants to walk into developer documents to understand why they should buy a product. But that is exactly what Microsoft is asking consumers to do. How Windows emulates coded instructions for X86 processors to ship ARM code can be understood to summarize in a circle supporting documents on the Microsoft site. That’s not good enough. Microsoft has never made any real effort to inform consumers about what the ARM platform entails, what its limitations are, and what options there are to overcome those limitations.

They’re great limits, too. Let’s say you want to download the Zoom video conferencing app on Microsoft Pro Surface X. You won’t find it on the Microsoft store, forcing you to go to the Zoom 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 mock mode. So if a consumer tries to download the 64-bit version of the Zoom app on the Surface Pro X, they will be faced with a big, fat error message preventing its installation. This is a deadlock between a consumer and an enjoyable experience, and my bet is it’s one of the biggest reasons Windows-on-ARM PCs haven’t sold well.

apple 1 Apple

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

The “just working” part appears to involve “just waiting.” As Apple says in developer documents now posted on its site, “The translation process takes time, so users might see that translated apps launch or run slower at times.”

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