Apple silicon has arrived for the Mac. Not in my hands, but it has arrived.
Wow. I’m hesitant to call it revolutionary, simply because they’ve been on this path for over a decade. But I’m wowed for a number of reasons.
From the benchmarks I’ve seen, as well as the reviews, the performance isn’t what has wowed me. Yes, it’s impressive. But we had seen enough from iPhones to iPad Pros to know full well what we could expect from Apple’s first generation of their own SoC for the Mac. And they hit the marks.
I think what had the most profound impact on me was just the simple fact that they delivered on a promise to themselves, their users and their company. This wasn’t a short road! In this day and age, there are almost no technology companies that can stick the landing on a 10-year roadmap. Heck, many tech companies abandon their products and users in the span of a few years. Apple quietly persevered. They didn’t fall prey to hubris and conceit. They didn’t give us empty promises. They kept plugging away behind the scenes while Intel and others floundered, or overpromised and underdelivered, or just believed that the x86 architecture would be king forever. And much of this work happened after the passing of Steve Jobs. So to those who thought Apple would flounder without him… I think you’ve been wrong all along.
It’s not like I didn’t see this coming; it’s been rumored for what seems like forever. But I hadn’t really reflected on the potential impact until it arrived. Some background…
I’m a Mac user, and I love macOS. But I’m a software developer, and the main reason I love macOS is that it’s a UNIX. I like the user interface more than any other, but I spend most of my time in a terminal window running emacs, clang++, etc. Tasks served well by any UNIX. For me, macOS has been the best of two worlds. I shunned OS 9; I loved the Mac, but OS 9 fell short of my needs. When OS X arrived, I was on board. Finally an OS I could use for my work AND heartily recommend to non-techies. And the things I liked about NeXT came along for the ride.
The other reason I’ve loved Macs: the quality of Apple laptops has been exceptional for a very long time. With the exception of the butterfly keyboard fiasco and the still-mostly-useless Touch Bar (function keys are WAY more useful for a programmer), I’ve been very happy with my Mac laptops. Literally nothing else on the market has met my needs as well as a Macbook Pro, going back longer than I can remember.
But now… wow. Apple just put a stake in the ground that’s literally many miles ahead of everyone else in the personal computing space. It’s akin to the Apollo moon landing. We all saw it coming, but now the proof has arrived.
To be clear, the current M1 lineup doesn’t fit my needs. I’m not in the market for a Macbook Air or a 13″ Macbook Pro. I need a screen larger than 13″, and some of my development needs don’t fit a 16G RAM limitation, which also rules out the M1 Mac Mini (as does the lack of 10G ethernet). And like any first generation product, there are some quirks that have yet to be resolved (issues with some ultra wide monitors), missing features (no eGPU support), etc. But… for many users, these new machines are fantastic and there is literally nothing competitive. Just look at the battery life on the M1 Macbook Air and Macbook Pro 13″. Or the Geekbench scores. Or how little power they draw whether on battery or plugged into the wall. There’s no fan in the M1 Macbook Air because it doesn’t need one.
Of course, for now, I also need full x64 compatibility. I run Windows and other VMs on my Macs for development purposes, and as of right now I can’t do that on an M1 Mac. That will come if I’m to believe Parallels, but it won’t be native x64, obviously. But at least right now, Rosetta 2 looks reasonable. And it makes sense versus the original Rosetta, for a host of reasons I won’t delve into here.
Where does this leave Intel? I don’t see it as significant right now. Apple is and was a fairly small piece of Intel’s business. Today, Intel is in much bigger trouble from AMD EPYC, Threadripper, Threadripper Pro and Ryzen 3 than Apple silicon. That could change, but I don’t see Apple threatening Intel. Apple has no products in Intel’s primary business (servers). Yes, what Apple has done is disruptive, in a good way. But the long-term impact is yet to be seen.
I am looking forward to what comes next from Apple. Something I haven’t been able to say about Intel CPUs in quite some time. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a heavy FreeBSD and Linux user as well. Despite the age of x86/x64, we do have interesting activity here. AMD Threadripper, EPYC and Ryzen 3 are great for many of my needs and have put significant pressure on Intel. But I believe that once Apple releases a 16″ Macbook Pro with their own silicon and enough RAM for my needs… there will literally be nothing on the market that comes even close to what I want in a laptop, for many years. It will be a solid investment.
For the long run… Apple has now finally achieved what they’ve wanted since their inception: control of their hardware and software stack across the whole product lineup. Exciting times. Real competition in the space that’s long been dominated by x86/x64, which will be good for all of us as consumers. But make no mistake: Apple’s success here isn’t easily duplicated. Their complete control over the operating system and the hardware is what has allowed them to do more (a LOT more) with less power. This has been true on mobile devices for a long time, and now Apple has brought the same synergies to bear on the PC market. As much as I appreciate Microsoft and Qualcomm SQ1 and SQ2 Surface Pro X efforts, they are far away from what Apple has achieved.
One thing that continues to befuddle me about what’s being written by some… things like “ARM is now real competition for x86/x64”. Umm… ARM’s relevance hasn’t changed. They license reference core architectures and instruction sets. Apple is not building ARM reference architectures. If ARM was the one deserving credit here, we’d have seen similar success for Windows and Linux of ARM. ARM is relevant. But to pretend that Apple M1 silicon is just a product of ARM, and that there’s now some magic ARM silicon that’s going to go head-to-head with x86/x64 across the industry, is pure uninformed folly. M1 is a product of Apple, designed specifically for macOS and nothing else. All of the secret sauce here belongs to Apple, not ARM.
I’ve also been seeing writers say that this might prompt Microsoft and others to go the SoC route. Anything is possible. But look at how long it took Apple to get to this first generation for the Mac, and consider how they did it: mobile first, which brought unprecedented profits and many generations of experience. Those profits allowed them to bring in the talent they needed, and the very rapid growth of mobile allowed them to iterate many times in a fairly short span of time. Wash, rinse, repeat. Without the overhead of owning the fab. And for what many have considered a ‘dead’ market (personal computers). Yes, PC sales have on average been on a steady decline for some time. But the big picture is more complex; it’s still the case that a smartwatch isn’t a smartphone, a smartphone isn’t a tablet, a tablet isn’t a laptop, a laptop isn’t a desktop, most desktops are not workstations, a workstation isn’t a storage server, etc. What we’ve seen is the diversification of computing. The average consumer doesn’t need a workstation. Many don’t need a desktop, and today they have other options for their needs. But the desktop and workstation market isn’t going to disappear. We just have a lot more options to better fit our needs than we did when smartphones, tablets, ultrabooks, etc. didn’t exist.
I’ve always been uneasy with those who’ve written that Apple would abandon the PC market. The Mac business, standalone, generated 28.6 billion U.S. dollars in 2020. That would be at spot 111 on the Fortune 500 list. Not to mention that Apple and all the developers writing apps for Apple devices need Macs. The fact that Apple’s desktop business is a much smaller portion of their overall revenue isn’t a product of it being a shrinking business; it’s 4X larger in revenue than it was 20 years ago. The explosive growth in mobile has dwarfed it, but it has continued to be an area of growth for Apple. Which is not to say that I haven’t bemoaned the long delays between releases of Apple professional Mac desktops, not to mention the utter disaster of the 2013 Mac Pro. But Apple is notoriously tight-lipped about their internal work until it’s ready to ship, and it’s clear now that they wisely directed their resources at decoupling their PC fates from Intel. None of this would have happened if Apple’s intent was to abandon personal computers.
So we enter a new era of Apple. Rejoice, whether you’re an Apple user or not. Innovation spurs further innovation.