People often obsess over the designs of Apple‘s products: Their smooth glass screens, the aluminum and stainless steel edges, and the colorful designs. But one of Apple’s most attention-grabbing design changes may be on the inside rather than the outside.
Apple is expected on Monday to announce plans to shift away from using Intel chips as the processing brains for its Mac computers. Instead, it would switch to its own chips, using the same foundation as in its A-Series processors, which have powered iPhones and iPads since 2010.
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The announcement is expected to come as part of a keynote speech opening Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC, which starts on Monday. The event is being held entirely online amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has led governments around the world to order people to stay at home, cancel events and temporarily shutter businesses. Apple’s also expected to announce new updates to its iOS software for the iPhone, MacOS software for Mac computers, iPadOS for its tablets and WatchOS for its Apple Watch.
Why Apple could ditch Intel in new Macs
But the transition away from Intel toward its own chips will garner the bulk of the attention, given the seismic shift in direction of its computers and the implications for how they’ll evolve in the coming years. Mobile processors are supposed to be more power efficient, offer always-on capabilities found in a smartphone and work better with cellular capabilities, even if questions remain about their ability to power a full-fledged computer and sophisticated programs. Further down the line, the shift could the door to Apple eventually merging its iOS and MacOS platforms, since they would run on the same chips designs, though the company’s frequently said that won’t happen.
For many Apple watchers, the move away from Intel was a foregone conclusion. Apple’s touted its A-Series chip performance for years, arguing in 2019 that the A13 Bionic chip for the iPhone 11 was the highest-performance chip ever in a phone.
“Our Apple-designed chips have led the industry for years,” Kaiann Drance, now Apple’s vice president of marketing, said at the time.
Now Apple’s chips are expected to begin to power its laptops too.
Long time coming
The move, which has been the subject of rumors for years, comes a decade and a half after Apple forged a partnership with Intel to replace IBM chips to power its computers. In 2020, Apple is also a much bigger company, at the center of an ecosystem of app developers that represent billions of dollars in sales and tens of thousands of jobs.
Many analysts agree that Apple switching its chips makes strategic sense. Apple’s move will give it greater ability to fine-tune the technology powering its devices, likely delivering products with a more consistent experience. It’ll also help Apple potentially include 5G wireless in its computers, since the technology foundation behind its A series chips is so deeply intertwined with cellular capabilities.
But Apple’s shift comes as the company is under intense scrutiny, both from its developer community and from regulators around the world. Apple exerts strong control over its App Store for the Mac and iPhone, which has kept its devices largely safe from hackers and fly-by-night con artists creating fake apps. But it’s also been drawn into public debates with developers whose apps it rejects because they attempt to replace Apple’s own programs, operate in ways the company doesn’t allow, or attempt to make money without giving Apple a cut of the proceeds.
Those developers, including Spotify and business productivity company Basecamp, have drawn the attention of industry influencers and government regulators, who are debating whether the company’s acting in a monopolistic fashion.
“Because of the market power that Apple has, it is charging exorbitant rents — highway robbery, basically — bullying people to pay 30% or denying access to their market,” Rep. David Cicilline, a New York Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, told The Verge on Thursday. “This is a direct consequence of enormous market power, the fact that Apple is the gatekeeper.”
The European Union has likewise opened two investigations into Apple, including one triggered by a complaint from Spotify over the high fees that the tech giant charges and another on the restrictions Apple places on developers to inform them of payment options that are cheaper outside of the app.
No matter what’s happening outside Apple, the work inside the company to make the transition away from Intel will take years. And the company will have to convince its faithful fans that the move is worth it.
“It’s a non-trivial task,” said Bob O’Donnell, a longtime tech industry analyst now at Technalysis Research. He estimates it’ll be about 18 months before Apple can say it’s finished the transition, and likely longer for its high-end $5,000 desktop computers like the Mac Pro.
The company may let developers rent a computer from the company with Apple-designed chips inside, but it likely won’t sell these new computers publicly until next year.
“It’ll take them years to successfully make the move,” O’Donnell said.
Making it worthwhile
In 2005, when Apple last switched the processing brains in its computers, both the company and its development partners did a lot of coding work so the apps that spoke the “binary” language for IBM’s chips could be translated into the code Intel’s chips used.
To most industry watchers at the time, the move made obvious sense. Intel’s chips offered better battery life and faster performance than the IBM chips Apple was using. Ultimately, Apple was able to leverage its work with Intel to build computers like the super-thin MacBook Air, which pushed competing laptops to offer thinner, lighter and better-looking devices.
“This is awesome technology,” Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said when discussing the small size and fast performance of the first MacBook Air’s chips in 2008. At the time, Apple marketed the device as the world’s thinnest notebook, with little compromise.
This time around, the shift will be harder to pull off.
Mobile chips are more power efficient and will allow for even slimmer designs. But unlike with Intel processors, Apple’s iPhone and iPad chips aren’t yet proven as powerful enough for desktop and laptop computers. And though tech giant Microsoft and other companies have built laptops running on mobile chips, most PCs run on Intel.
Apple is also a much different company than it was back in 2005. Back then, there was no iPhone. Apple was tallying a mere $14 billion in annual sales, primarilydriven by Mac computers. The iPod, which would go on to lead Apple’s renaissance, made up about 33% of the company’s sales at the time.
Fast forward to the modern day, when Apple’s sales have grown nearly 19 times larger. Any move it makes now has much broader ripples through its much larger customer base and vast ecosystem of developers who built apps and accessories for its products.
“Apple needs to show what’s in it for users and what’s in it for developers,” said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy and a former chip executive at Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices.
Still, he said, it’s likely the tech industry’s reliance on web-based apps such as the Slack messenger service, Evernote online note taking and Google‘s G-Suite online productivity apps will make the transition easier since they’re designed to run on pretty much any device.
The bigger benefits may be down the line. With both MacOS and iOS running on the same processor platform, Apple has the option to eventually merge the two or at least tout the ability for developers to create one app to more easily run on multiple products.
While Apple’s public breakup with Intel may start at WWDC on Monday, it’s not the only thing people will be looking for.
The biggest changes rumored are for iPhones and iPads, for which Apple may allow more customization of the home screen, better multitasking and better augmented reality technology. The AR technology, which uses a phone’s or a tablet’s camera and screen to overlay computer-generated images on the real world, is said to be an initial step to Apple eventually announcing AR-enabled glasses possibly sometime this year.
The company is also rumored to be ready to debut new iMac desktop computers, with more powerful Intel chips, to tide users over until it transitions to its own chips next year.
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