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Apple ARMs up to take back control

by Bill Ray  |  June 26, 2020  |  Submit a Comment

Apple laptops are switching to use Apple chips, just like the iPhone and the iPad already do. However, the move has little to do with processing or battery consumption, and lots to do with technology ownership and product differentiation.

The religious fervour around the relative merits of RISC and CISC conceals a more-important difference between ARM and Intel x86. By designing its own chips (based around ARM cores) Apple gains control over the release cycle and the feature list of upcoming processors. Apple can integrate it’s T2 security chip and (eventually) a cellular modem, things that are much more valuable than faster raytracing or a few extra hours of operation. Being unique is more important than being the best, not to mention that custom chippery creates an enormous barrier against competitive threats.

Apple has known this for a long time, but changing chips isn’t a move to be taken lightly. High-level programming languages (Python, Ruby, et al) offer fast development, and greater security, but they also offer independence from the processor. Legacy software has been holding back the transition, but better emulation and binary code translation mitigates that, and the legacy code problem diminishes every year. For Apple there’s also the huge catalogue of (ARM-based) iPad software to consider.

Note that the transition isn’t really from Intel to ARM, or CISC to RISC. The important move here is from externally-supplied components to internally-developed magic.

Apple is approximately 7% of the PC market, so move won’t hurt Intel much directly, but the trend is more important. Apple will save money on Intel’s margin, but Apple also hates to share the stage with anyone (both figuratively, and literally). Stepping away from Intel has important marketing benefits. ARM isn’t so demanding of its partners which is (perhaps) more important than the reduced power consumption that ARM-based designs offer.

Apple isn’t alone in realizing the benefits of such an approach, though it may be the poster child for the idea. Custom chips aren’t as hard to design as they used to be. A high-powered processor for a laptop might still be a challenge, but companies creating IoT applications can equally gain from improved branding, ownership of the roadmap, and a better matched feature set, just as Apple has done. We’ve discussed this a few times, in How Your Business Should Realize the Benefits of the OEM-Foundry-Direct Revolution and OEM-Foundry Direct: Evaluate Your ASIC Business Case to name just two. The trend in inescapable.

So when we debate the relative merits of x86 and ARM-based systems (as we very often do) we must remember that processing power, cost, and power consumption, are all important, but differentiation and branding are what sells products – something that Apple knows better than most.

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Bill Ray
Sr Director Analyst, Semiconductors & Electronics I
3 years at Gartner
32 years IT Industry

Bill Ray provides written research and inquiry support covering wireless connectivity, primarily for Product Managers and Tech CEOs. His researches focus on evolving standards for IoT connectivity and 5G services, and the semiconductors needed to support them.Read Full Bio




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