Apple has long been the lone wolf of the personal computer industry in maintaining its own operating system instead of licensing Microsoft’s Windows as rivals do. Tuesday it struck out further from the pack by launching its first laptops and desktops built on processors designed wholly in house.
The silicon shift gives Apple new control over its own destiny—and perhaps the future of the personal computer.
The change was long expected. Apple already crafts both the chips and software that power its mobile devices. Tuesday the company unveiled the first Macs built on a processor, the M1, designed by Apple’s own chip engineers, abandoning the industry’s dominant supplier, Intel.
The M1 is similar to Apple’s iPhone and iPad processors, allowing mobile apps to run on its new PCs and bringing improved power efficiency. “This was Apple separating itself even more from the rest of the PC industry,” says Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research, which tracks the chip business. “The PC becomes more like the smartphone.”
Making its own mobile processors has helped Apple innovate with such features as facial recognition and augmented reality on the iPhone. Designing its own chips for devices like the MacBooks and Mac Mini announced Tuesday should also allow Apple to be more creative with PCs.
When chip, device, and software engineers work closely together they can squeeze more performance out of a device than is possible with an off-the-shelf chip. In Tuesday’s event, Apple software chief Craig Federighi boasted that the new MacBook Air can wake up from sleep mode more or less instantly, similarly to a smartphone or tablet. The company also touted impressive battery lives for its new M1-based MacBooks, up to 20 hours of video playback on a single charge.
Apple’s new design freedom could prove to be influential on other PC makers, just as the iPhone has shaped the smartphone market.
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Smartphones started out as smaller, less powerful accessories to PCs. With its new chip strategy, Apple is reversing the dynamic, blurring the boundaries between PC and smartphone. Competitors that don’t also produce industry leading smartphones could find it difficult to keep up. Krewell says Apple could also use its iPhone experience to integrate cellular connectivity to its Apple laptops, giving users another way to get online.
Apple’s event Tuesday also suggested it will steer its software engineers—and those at other software companies—to work more with artificial intelligence on laptops and desktops. Like Apple’s recent iPhone chips, the M1 has a dedicated “neural engine” to run machine learning code more efficiently. Apple said Tuesday that helps make photo and video editing packages snappier; dedicated AI support could also help gaming or new categories of desktop software.
Taking control of processors is the latest and largest step in Apple’s long campaign of vertical integration. The company has spent more than a decade building a pool of chip design talent and has designed the processors at the heart of its mobile devices since 2010. Last year, the company spent $1 billion to acquire the unit of Intel that made cellular and Wi-Fi modems. Now it designs the silicon at the heart of Macs, too.
Apple’s chip change has been in the works for years but appears well-timed, because it could help the company deal with two major challenges in the computer business.
Intel still dominates the market for PC and server chips but has struggled to launch its two most recent generations of chip-making technology on time. Using its own chips, designed in-house and manufactured by Taiwan’s TSMC, frees Apple from Intel’s troubles. Losing Apple isn’t a huge blow to Intel in terms of sales, because Apple is a small player in PCs, but it adds to the perception that Intel has lost its mojo. It’s a reputation boost for ARM, the UK-based company that licenses ARM chip technology to Apple and many others and is set to be acquired by graphics chips company Nvidia.
Meanwhile, the computing industry faces an uncertain future in which chips advance more slowly. The conventional strategy of making more powerful chips by making transistors smaller is becoming more difficult to sustain, because the devices are already measured in nanometers.
Switching Macs to TSMC-built processors of Apple’s own design vaults its PCs onto the smallest, best chip manufacturing technology, says Aakash Jani, a senior analyst at the Linley Group. That offers both performance gains and cash savings, because smaller processors are more cost efficient, he says. Apple should also be able to extract more performance from its chips by tightly integrating them with its software and adding special features like its neural engine, Jani says. “It’s a big shift, but it was the right time for Apple because it allows them greater liberties in design than they had with Intel,” he says.
Apple’s chip-and-PC show on Tuesday left some questions unanswered. The company said the M1 would appear in lower-end Macs: the MacBook Air, smallest MacBook Pro, and the Mac Mini desktop. The company likely has a second chip for its higher-end PCs, the Mac Pro and iMac, which are commonly used for computational heavy lifting, such as designing special effects or large-scale video editing.
It’s also unclear whether the transition from Intel to Apple chips will be as buttery smooth as Tuesday’s presentation promised. Software developers generally need to make different versions of their packages to properly work on a different architecture.
Some big developers are already reworking their apps for Apple’s new chips. Adobe’s Lightroom photo organizer and editor will be available in a new version next month, Apple said, and a new version of Photoshop is due early next year. Apple has also created emulation software called Rosetta that translates apps to work on ARM on the fly.
An earlier version of Rosetta was deployed in 2006 when Apple switched from the PowerPC chips it had used for more than a decade to Intel processors, with disappointing results for some customers. Jani says emulation has improved since, but how smoothly software switches to Apple-chip-powered Macs won’t be clear until lots have been bought and pressed into service.