Apple’s walled garden becomes harder to escape
"Cupertino: the Icon Garden" photo by missmac on Flickr. Used under the CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

Apple’s walled garden becomes harder to escape

Today, Apple released the first of its new “Apple Silicon”-based computers. Rather than relying on chip maker Intel for the CPUs that power its desktop and laptop computers, Apple has moved to designing and building the chips in-house.

This isn’t Apple’s first foray into chip design. For years, the iPhone and iPad have been built around Apple’s custom A-series chips instead of widely-available mobile processors from other companies. The chips are based on technology produced by ARM Holdings, a British company. ARM both makes its own chips and licenses its designs to other companies, including Apple. By making its own chips, Apple can extend the base ARM specification and add its own features.

Apple has chosen to not refer to ARM outside of its developer documentation, instead calling the chips “Apple Silicon” – and for good reason. Today’s announced M1 chip isn’t just a standard CPU: It’s a System on a Chip (SoC), doing much more than a regular Intel CPU, like managing system memory and video.

A brief history of Apple’s chip transitions

Software written for Intel chips can’t run on ARM chips, and vice versa. This isn’t unique: There are hundreds of chip designs and instruction sets for microprocessors, and even in the same family of chips they can be incompatible with each other.

In 1994, Apple moved from Motorola’s 680×0 line of chips to the PowerPC line developed by Apple, Motorola and IBM. The new chips weren’t compatible with the old, so Apple wrote an emulation layer to allow the new chips to run everyone’s old software. Similarly in 2005, Apple switched from the PowerPC to Intel’s chips and build the Rosetta emulation layer.

Apple has already announced Rosetta 2, an updated translation layer to allow most of the apps you currently run on your Mac to also work on your new Apple Silicon-based Mac. An added bonus of the new Apple Silicon systems is the ability to run iPad and iPhone apps directly on your computer.

Whither Hackintosh?

While other operating systems like Linux and Windows support a wide variety of chips and hardware combinations to run on, Apple’s operating systems only work on systems Apple builds: macOS for Macs, iOS for iPhones, iPadOS for iPads, and so on.

The transition to Intel processors in 2005 opened up a new world of possibilities for people who wanted to run Mac OS X on their non-Apple computers: Intel’s chips were the standard across the industry, and people with knowledge could easily build their own computers with off-the-shelf parts that more or less matched Apple’s own specs. This gave birth to the Hackintosh community, people who worked to get Mac OS X running on their own custom PCs.

Apple has taken great measures to prevent running macOS on non-Apple computers:

  • Apple’s own licensing agreement legally prevents running macOS on anything but legitimate Apple hardware.
  • The company included a piece of software called “Don’t Steal Mac OS X.kext”, or DSMOS, that tied the ability to start the computer directly to Apple hardware.
  • Apple has used the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) to shut down forums dedicated to running its software on non-Apple computers.
  • The Secure Boot feature on newer Mac computers needs to be turned off to install most alternative operating systems – or to use a customized version of macOS.

Moving to its own custom ARM-based Apple Silicon will make running the software on off-the-shelf components much harder. The highly-customized M1 SoC isn’t going to be available off the shelves, and macOS will be very integrated to work directly on that chip. That’s not to say it will be impossible: The Hackintosh community will continue working on the project. Apple has also stated it will support Intel-based Macs for a while.

As Dieter Bohn said in The Verge’s live coverage of today’s event, “New security protections” coming. That’s a net good, but also as a side note: say goodnight Hackintosh fans. (Goodnight Hackintosh fans.)

The Hackintosh community represents an extremely small fraction of those who use macOS, and is largely limited to power users. Still, Apple has unnecessarily locked down its platform to prevent creative uses.

Within the Apple ecosystem

Even when running Apple software on Apple hardware, we face the increasing challenge of escaping Apple’s walled garden. As I wrote on the Apple vs Epic argument about walled gardens:

It’s clean, manicured and nicely taken care of. But what you may not notice while enjoying it is that there are 50-foot walls surrounding it. The owner controls the gate, only letting in those they deem acceptable and kicking the rest out.

Epic and Apple v You

On an iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch, you can only install software that’s been approved by Apple through the App Store unless you jump through serious technical hoops by jailbreaking or changing the device at a very low level. Jailbreaking comes with its own risks, and stories abound of people breaking their devices temporarily or permanently, in the process. Jailbroken phones also may require additional work to install important security updates.

Apps on the Mac are also locked down, but not as much as on mobile devices. Apple does encourage distribution through the App Store, where developers have to comply with a very restrictive set of technical and other policies limiting what apps can do. Developers can still release their own applications outside of the App Store, but if they are not registered with Apple, users have to take extra steps to run them, and these steps come with warnings about potential danger.

With the advent of Apple Silicon, Apple will let iPhone and iPad apps run on Mac computers. There is a persistent fear in the tech community that this is another step in the merger of the Mac and mobile products that could ultimately end up with Apple restricting what software you can run on your computer as well. While this will likely not happen soon, it could be within Apple’s goals.

On the hardware side, nearly all of Apple’s devices are difficult or impossible for the average person to upgrade or repair. This is marked change from the 90s and early 2000s, when you could open your computer and install a new hard drive or upgrade your memory with relative ease. Apple has prioritized design over extensibility, a thin phone over a repairable phone.

The trade-off with security and profit

Apple’s stated reasons for many of these restrictions on what software can run on its devices come down to security: By limiting what an app can do, by forcing the app to be verified by the company itself, it can lower the chance of a malicious or rogue app damaging your system. There is truth to this, but it is certainly not the only way to manage security. Systems like QubesOS manage security very well, but extremely complicated and out of reach of an average phone or computer user. The basic premise of such a secure system design could still be an inspiration to an Apple dedicated to its users.

Of course, such a company would limit its profits: If you want to run macOS and can only run it on an Apple computer, that’s at least a few hundred – or few thousand – dollars in Apple’s pocket. If developers can avoid using the App Store, then Apple doesn’t get its 30% cut of every purchase made.

On the subject of repair, Apple in recent years has made it all but impossible to get your device repaired anywhere but at an Apple Store or authorized (licensed) service center. “Unauthorized” repair shops can

Repeating the past, but better

The history of computing is one of extensibility – writing software or modifying hardware to make the system do something exciting and new. Programmers would manually copy code out of the backs of geeky magazines, painstakingly checking for typos, then extending it to make the software their own.

These systems were not accessible to the average person who just wanted to make a spreadsheet or type a letter, but the ability to explore and play with a system led to the development of Word, Excel and everything we take for granted.

Walled gardens are beautiful, but ultimately limit our ability to use our devices the way we want to. While most people might not care to upgrade their memory or run unique software on their devices, the ability to do so should be a basic right. The devices we use today are exponentially more powerful than the basic systems of the 1980s, and we should have every right to modify or use our devices as we see fit.