Apple shifting to Arm is its first instruction set change in 14 years...
After two years of rumors, at this year’s (virtual) World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC), Apple finally announced that it was going to migrate all its Mac products from Intel processors to the company’s own Arm-based silicon. It is expected that Apple Mac products based on a future version of its upcoming A14 system-on-chip (SoC) will be similar to the A14 for the iPhone and iPads but optimized for higher thermal limits offered in Mac products. Through out the WWDC presentation, Apple called the new processors “Apple Silicon” and never mentioned the Arm instruction set used by its A series of processors.
Apple said developers can “start building apps today and first system ships by year’s end, beginning a two-year transition.” (Source: Apple)
From a hardware perspective, Apple probably could have made the move sooner, as its iPad processors were shown to be roughly comparable to older Intel Core i5 processors. Apple took the extra time to make sure it had a smooth transition story and it provided support for all the legacy software running on the macOS with Rosetta 2 emulation technology. To get developers started, Apple is offering them a Mac Mini with an A12Z processor and the beta version of the macOS Big Sur operating system that will support the new Apple processors.
Apple will still offer Intel-based MacBooks and desktop Mac products for the next two years as it transitions to the Apple Silicon. With control over the entire hardware and software design, Apple should be able to close any performance gap with mainstream Intel processors quickly while doing what it does best — offering a great user experience. Apple’s stated goal is to deliver desktop CPU performance at notebook power levels.
Apple gets an A for CPU design
By replacing Intel processors with its own A-series of Arm processors, Apple gains more control over the platform and further differentiates itself from Windows PCs. While Apple may lose some very high-end performance in desktop systems, the Arm architecture has shown to be very power efficient and still offer good performance, making it ideal for thin and light laptops.
Another reason for Apple to move to its own A series SoCs is the slowing of Moore’s Law. Process shrinks are getting fewer and farther in between and Intel stumbled getting to 10nm while Apple’s A series foundry TSMC is in volume production on 7nm and already ramping 5nm. Apple gains more control over its roadmap because even if TSMC stumbles, it can go elsewhere, even potentially to Intel, for foundry services.
Apple can also change the definition of a PC with its own processor and more heterogeneous computing. PCs now trail smart phones in advancing personal technology. Smartphone processors include DSPs and neural net processors, as well as multiple sensors, along with the standard CPU, GPU and I/O and memory. The move from Intel x86 to its A-Series processors is an opportunity for Apple to reinvent the Mac and make it more user-centric. It could mean computers that are more portable, more flexible, and more intuitive. This would really be an opportunity for Apple to differentiate itself from the rest of industry even further.
Third time’s a charm
This is also a good time to remember that Apple has gone through CPU instruction set transition several times before. The first instruction set transition for Apple Macs was from the Motorola 68000 architecture used in the original 1984 Macintosh computers to the Apple/IBM/Motorola designed PowerPC in 1994. Twelve years later, in 2006, Apple transitioned from the PowerPC to the Intel processors. Each transition caused short-term disruptions in performance that were later corrected by new native software. This current era of Intel Core processors will have lasted about 15 years when Apple begins the real transition in 2021, which would be the longest Apple has utilized the same instruction set since the Apple II.
This is also a great opportunity for Apple to further blend two of its major operating systems: iPadOS and macOS. The two are on a path towards greater unity, and now it will be easier to run iPadOS and iOS applications on Macs. By bringing the two operating systems closer together, Apple will more seamlessly integrate its product lines and create a continuum of computing platforms, as opposed to discretely different platforms with different use cases. This could also boost App Store revenue by offering developers the opportunity to write one application and have it run on all of Apple’s platforms in a single binary.
Cutting Intel processors out of Mac for its own A-Series processors will undoubtedly lower supply chain costs and increase margins, but I see no evidence Apple will cut the price of the Mac. By building the entire system, including its own processor, hardware and software, Apple will become more fully integrated than any other consumer computer company.