Last Week on My Mac: No secret

I’m sure that Apple still has a surprise or two in store for us on Tuesday, and must be hoping for the clamour of the US Presidential election to have quietened down by then. There’s now no secret that Apple will be launching macOS Big Sur and its first Apple Silicon Macs at next week’s Event, and it’s only tradition which prevents that from being written all over the invitations.

The Mac App Store is already starting to deliver the first updates which proudly announce that they support Apple Silicon models; well done to the developers who’ve not only accomplished that but also managed to slip their announcement through the app review process. We even know that the first fully functional release of Big Sur won’t be the same 11.0 pre-installed on those brand new models, but 11.0.1. That finally fixes the asr tool so that disk cloning software like SuperDuper! and Carbon Copy Cloner can restore bootable copies of Big Sur without having to install a fresh copy of the system first.

We’re already familiar – for some, only too familiar – with the changed look of Big Sur. From early on in the beta phase there has been a succession of protests at its rough edges, some of which have already been smoothed. There remains plenty which I’m sure will evolve further over the coming months before most of us feel comfortable with its new interface. For what it’s worth, I’ve been using Big Sur in both Light and Dark modes for frequent and sometimes extended sessions over the last four months, and it does grow on you if you give it a chance.

This is, though, but the start of a journey and not its destination, both in terms of Big Sur’s changes and Apple Silicon Macs. There’s a great deal we still don’t know about the new hardware, beyond speculating over which models Apple will release this week. Starting from the beginning, or as close to it as software gets, is the question of firmware, which has recently become so complex in Intel Macs.

All current models have two different firmware architectures which often don’t exactly see eye to eye. When a T2-equipped Mac needs to update its firmware, it shuts down the whole of the Intel side, leaving the user staring anxiously at an apparently dead Mac until (fingers crossed) it springs to life again. When anything unexpected happens to the T2 and its firmware, the danger is that the whole Mac will be bricked. Although that now seems infrequent, this isn’t a design which is either endearing or enduring.

Apple hasn’t yet released any information to developers about the firmware of Apple Silicon Macs. We know that it won’t be EFI, which is an Intel architecture, but even checking which version of firmware is installed remains a mystery which should shortly be solved. It will be a major step forward if these new models are simpler in this respect at least.

We already know that, whether running on Intel or Apple Silicon hardware, Big Sur brings some new problems. Although its new Sealed System Volume (SSV) is an important improvement in protecting the integrity of the system, it does make some traditional techniques either more complex or downright dangerous.

Many of us already have experience with Big Sur in dual-boot configurations, and the more common circumstance of having a bootable copy of Big Sur on an external disk. Many developers (myself included) have, of course, run dual-boot systems over the last few months, and few have come to grief. But the moment that you start opening and tinkering with Big Sur boot volumes from Mojave, which can’t even cope properly with those in Catalina, you risk trashing the SSV. Care and circumspection are going to be even more important when working with multiple boot volume groups.

For the moment, those are matters of detail. I’m confident that what Apple launches this coming week will be great, and the new Macs will draw gasps from many around the world. We can then look forward to the frisson of unboxing completely new hardware and discovering its strengths and maybe some weaknesses too.

Tuesday’s event may not appear as unpredictable as last week’s election, but there’s still a great deal of excitement to come. If you’re fearful of the new, you might like to go and hide somewhere. I’m ready to order my first production Apple Silicon Mac, and upgrade all except my production system to Big Sur. I hope that you’ll join me here to start that journey.