Apple moving to ARM on Macs, what does it mean?

There’s a rumor that Apple will be moving to ARM chips on the Macintosh product line. It’s still just a rumor, and we’ve been hearing such things for a few years now, but now it’s out on Bloomberg, which is saying Apple intends to make this announcement the week of the 22nd, at their World Wide Developers Conference — so, we can assume it’s a pretty solid rumor at this point. But what does it mean? First things first, we’re talking about CPUs. Big CPU manufacturers include Intel, AMD, Motorola, etc… If you’re old enough, you may remember the “Intel inside” campaign. That was about building the relatively unknown Intel brand, but also differentiating against Motorola. In some cases, changing CPUs just means getting better performance. But sometimes, changing CPUs can mean an entire restructuring of the operating system and everything connected — a so called architectural change. That’s what this Apple rumor would mean. Apple has done this twice before: in 1994 it moved from the Motorola 68xxx chipset to the PowerPC chipset; then, in 2006, it switched from PowerPC to Intel (x86 architecture). This time, if it happens, it will be a switch from x86 to ARM (actually, Apple’s own, in-house chips, which are already in use on the i-devices). Every time these changes have happened, it’s ostensibly been because of speed — but the speed improvements have always been small compared to the institutional cost of transition. Apple’s internal software (mail, safari, e.g.) always moves first, but getting the important third parties (think Adobe, Microsoft) to put in the giant effort to move is non-trivial. Moreover, while Apple has always provided a transition environment, where the old software would continue to work, such environments have been, quite frankly, terrible. So, such changes have never been purely about speed, they’ve always been about roadmap. About where the chips are going in the future, and what Apple wants to do in the future that it thinks is critical — so important that it’s willing to disrupt all of its third-party vendors, for some hypothetical future. When Apple moved from 68xxx to PowerPC, it was not just because PowerPC was faster — PowerPC ran much cooler, which allowed Apple to deliver on its vision for PowerBook laptops. Laptops that were thinner, and didn’t require the noisy fan, and yet were also faster. Essentially the same thing happened with the move from PowerPC to Intel — it was all about Intel’s roadmap being in better alignment with Apples, and with their focus on mobile. When Apple came out with their first 15″ MacBook Pro, it was not just their fastest laptop ever, it was also their tiniest and lightest. Two years later, they’d come out with the first MacBook Air. Which raises the question: what is Apple doing now, that’s causing them to make this jump? Of course, I have no insider knowledge; moreover, in the post-Steve-Jobs world, it can be easy to overestimate how dramatic a change Apple might make; but one line in the Bloomberg article has me thinking. “Inside Apple, tests of new Macs with the ARM-based chips have shown sizable improvements …, specifically in … apps using artificial intelligence.” It’s easy to make fun of Siri, particularly her current capabilities in relation to Google Assistant or Alexa. But when Siri came out, she was groundbreaking, and you know Apple hasn’t been sitting on its laurels — it’s been working up a storm in the background. It may still be a year or two away, and there’s the very real possibility that nothing so ambitious is happening; but if I were to bet on it, I’d bet that within five years, Apple has changed the way we think about interacting with computers, and has taken AI to a whole new level.

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