Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Only Apple

The introduction of the iPad in January 2010 will be remembered for lots of reasons. It was the first tablet computer to sell in large numbers and remains a category-defining product. It was the last new category of product to be introduced by Steve Jobs. It was the first expansion of the iOS codebase, which now underpins the Apple TV, Apple Watch, HomePod, and MacBook Pro Touch Bar. And, of course, it debuted Apple’s A-series of ARM processors designed in-house.

Ever since, there has been growing speculation about the viability of a Mac featuring an Apple-designed processor; as those custom processors have far outperformed competing offerings for phones and tablets, and spread across the product line, it has felt inevitable.

Exactly fifteen years and two weeks after Apple’s last processor transition was announced, the Mac is about to make the leap. It will join the rest of the company’s product lineup in running on processors developed in-house, using the ARM instruction set instead of the x86 architecture used by Intel. Just like that — boom — the inevitable became reality.

The way Apple is describing its current motivations for switching, you’d think they could almost copy the press releases from last time but swapping “PowerPC” and “Intel” for “Intel” and “Apple Silicon”, respectively. Everything feels a bit deja vu — efficiency, for example, is a primary motivator. The constraints of performance are primarily determined by energy use as it strongly correlates with battery consumption — relevant in notebooks — and heat output – relevant everywhere. Apple says that its own processors perform more efficiently than the Intel processors it has been using for the past fifteen years just as, during the transition away from PowerPC, Intel processors were described as providing more performance-per-watt.

The timing also recalls the last transition. When Apple moved away from PowerPC, Jobs specifically mentioned the company’s frustration at being unable to deliver a G5 PowerBook as there wasn’t a suitable processor in IBM’s pipeline. Intel, on the other hand, had a full portfolio of processors for everything from notebooks to professional desktops. During this year’s keynote, Johny Srouji spoke about how the company was developing a family of processors for the entire Mac lineup, and Craig Federighi demonstrated great performance from professional apps compiled for Apple’s own processors. What was unspoken but has been plainly obvious for years was how Intel has struggled to deliver across the board. Knowledgeable people say that this is a primary reason why Apple has struggled to update its Mac lineup as regularly as it once did.

Apple gains the ability to update its Macs as frequently as Srouji’s team is able to deliver new processors, but it also assumes the responsibility of being a more vertically integrated single vendor platform. Bold.

I don’t think anyone should be surprised by how closely this transition appears to be modelled on the last one — so much so that many of the technologies that are intended to create a seamless experience for users are billed as sequels to the ones used for the Intel transition: Universal 2 and Rosetta 2. Federighi even made a reference to Jobs’ introduction of Intel processors by introducing the transition after showing new MacOS features and saying that all of the new stuff was demonstrated on a Mac powered by Apple’s own processors.

But the big difference this transition is in the inherent possibilities of custom, product-specific processors with architecture shared by the rest of the product line. By not relying upon a third-party supplier, Apple is free to build into its Mac processors the kind of unique capabilities that have long been afforded to every other product the company makes. I have no dirt on this, but I would not be surprised if the reason no Mac has Face ID yet is because it demands Apple’s own ARM architecture.

MacOS Big Sur running on ARM will also allow iOS and iPadOS apps to run unmodified on a Mac. I do not know what to make of this. Where once there were separate worlds of iOS apps and Mac apps, there are now several app environments that you can run on a Mac: iOS apps, iPad-like Catalyst apps, Catalyst apps modified to be more Mac-like, Cocoa Mac apps — which are, in a sense, the new Classic — and SwiftUI-based apps. Oh, and Electron “apps”. These all feel a little different and, I imagine, iOS apps will sit with Electron and typical Catalyst apps on the ass-end of a scale of Mac-likeness. Whether this is something to look forward to or just something different about ARM Macs is yet to be seen. I think any Mac app that you love today from a developer that you trust will continue to be a true Mac app, so long as that is the best way to deliver a superior product. But whether Apple will continue to deliver terrific first-party apps designed and built specifically for the Mac is a concerning question.

Speaking of ARM, I feel compelled to point out that “ARM” is not mentioned once in the press release announcing this switch. This is something else that is not shocking — it isn’t as though Apple has spent the last fifteen years marketing its products as “x86-based”. That said, I think the use of “Apple silicon” in marketing materials is temporary. I expect the first ARM-based Mac to arrive with a processor branded in true Apple fashion.

Recall the Cook doctrine, via Adam Lashinsky in 2009, with my own emphasis:

We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products and that’s not changing. We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. We believe in saying no to thousands of projects, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot. And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change. And I think regardless of who is in what job those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.

You can judge for yourself whether Apple is living up to the simple-versus-complex qualities, or if it is not settling for less than excellence. But any time it has not controlled the technologies that underpin its products is a time when that has eventually bitten them in the ass. Ensuring that Apple’s products have wholly adequate processors tailored for its specific needs makes complete sense.

Does that mean that I am not a little bit anxious? No — of course I have some concern that, when I am next in the market for a Mac, it won’t be quite what I need and some piece of software I love won’t work properly on the new machines. But it isn’t as though that’s an entirely new concern. Also, Apple has set a high bar for both native applications and those running with the help of Rosetta 2. This is, truly, a new era of Mac. No wonder they called the software that will usher it in MacOS 11.

One of the slogans tying together the Tim Cook era is “only Apple” – as in, only Apple could have done this. Well, this truly feels like one of those moments, in more ways than one. Yes, only Apple can convince us that this platform transition will be near-seamless. But this also means that the next generation of Macs will be only Apple products through and through. From the processor to the operating system — and to many of the apps and services users will touch — these Macs are increasingly products defined solely by Apple.

I suppose that is my biggest concern. It is as though Apple now has no escape hatch — no obvious Plan B. When Intel began to struggle, it felt as though AMD could, perhaps, take the reins. That simply isn’t the case any longer. If Apple cannot deliver on its processors for its entire lineup — from the massively popular MacBook Air to the niche Mac Pro, and absolutely everything that lies between — it stops delivering period.

Thankfully, ten solid years of unmatched growth in CPU and GPU performance is a pretty solid C.V. to build the next generation of a business on top of. Apple has proved that it can build powerful and energy-efficient processors in devices as small as earbuds. I am excited to see what it can do with a chassis the size of my iMac, and the kind of vision and capabilities it has shown with its custom processors so far.