A Case for Rosetta Being Permanent

/ 30 April 2021

Apple Silicon Macs currently come with the Rosetta 2 software to translate Intel code for their new architecture. Apple has said this software is just a transition thing, as it was with the PowerPC to Intel transition of the aughts, and will someday go away. While I largely do believe that, though also think it’ll stay around for at least 2 to 3 years after all Macs being sold use Apple Silicon, I’ve realized it may have a longer-term use.

The Apple Silicon Macs are based on the same ARM archeteture as all of Apple’s other devices. But, that those use ARM is just the current situation. Since the iPad Pros now use the same M1 Apple Silicon as the device I’m typing this on (I use a Mac mini), their “M” evidently not referring to “Mac” (maybe “Modern”?), using that terminology may be here to stay. But ARM is not, necesarily. Apple’s decision to call these chips “Apple Silicon” rather than “ARM” (which would have been more like the old Macs being named “Intel”) leaves open the door for a future M-series chip to be based on some other architecture enmtirely without the mainstream knowing. At that point, Rosetta would be needed again. If Apple’s nomenclature for this new era of the Mac truly divorces the tech from what the mainstream knows it as, then Rosetta too (pun maybe intended) would be a constant need.

Also, why should Apple ever remove Rosetta? It is a very small piece of software downloaded on demand, and uses very little storage and processing resources (remember, the executable code is almost nothing compared to image and other resources in apps). I personally can hardly tell when I use apps that are still Intel (though I do track which are still just for fun). Further, some software many people use, like Dropbox, are stubbornly refusing to create native apps for the new Macs. Eventually Rosetta may run into issues with security holes Apple no longer wants to fix, but translating from a known quantity (no Macs will use any newer x86 archetecture than they are today) to their own instruction set may not need a ton of developer resources to maintain. But with the small footprint, it may make little sense ever removing Rosetta, it just might be mostly dormant for some time.

So, if you read into the name of these Macs, “Apple Silicon”, the specifics that they indeed are not referencing any specific computer archetecture, then perhaps we’ll see Rosetta 2 longer than we saw its predecessor. It could well be the glue that keeps the current generation of Mac apps (those that are pure Apple Silicon, like the app I’m typing in) humming along for years to come. Maybe one day the need to have archetecture information in the Get Info window in Finder will be a moot point. As for today, we know Rosetta isn’t going anywhere in any case.