Apple’s switch to its own ARM-based chips (cleverly branded as Apple Silicon) is a really interesting move if you’re a techie. A lot has been written about the capabilities of Apple’s new laptop chip, M1. However, I thought it would be interesting to speculate on what the move could mean for Apple’s future products and services.
First, lets rewind a little. In 2017, Apple announced the iPhone 8, with it’s in-house A11 Bionic chip. It was the latest in a long-line of ARM-derived processors, and the latest to dramatically outperform ARM’s own reference designs. It was also the first phone that was more powerful and efficient than the brand-new, Intel-based laptop I was using at the time, for many common tasks.
Since then, Apple has updated it’s A-series chips on an annual basis, bringing significant improvements to power-efficiency, processing power, and graphics performance. The latest A14 Bionic chip makes this year’s iPhone 12 series far faster at every performance benchmark than any Android phone you can currently purchase – in fact, Android phones still haven’t caught up with last year’s iPhone.
Now, Apple has taken that expertise and begun to apply it to desktop chips. The first chip, M1, is aimed at entry-level laptops and desktops (the MacBook Air, 13″ MacBook Pro and Mac mini).
The results, so far, are staggering.
M1’s performance is already up there with the very best AMD chips in the class and far ahead of the Intel chips that they replace. M1 represents a giant leap in performance and battery life that PC manufacturers will really struggle to match. And because of the shared architecture, M1 Macs can, in theory, run any app designed for iOS.
So what could this actually mean? What does it enable?
For many people, Macs have been a compelling choice for years, especially for iPhone owners due to the tight and elegant integration between the platforms. But with the M1 chip, Macs will be capable of things that PCs simply won’t. Instant wake from sleep for example. Battery that lasts an entire weekend, or an entire business trip. Apps that launch immediately. The difference in speed and battery life, and the use cases enabled by these advances, will raise the desirability of Macs still further…
…and that’s before you take into account the huge number of iOS apps which will start to become available on Mac. The world’s 1 billion+ iPhone and iPad users will find that they already have a library of apps available to them. The fact that these apps can be used on multiple devices will become a real point of stickiness, keeping users in the Apple ecosystem.
With M1, Apple now has console-class graphics performance. More specifically, the GPU performance of the integrated chip, at 2.6 teraflops, is behind the bleeding-edge consoles released this month (Xbox Series X has a 12 teraflop GPU!), but is notably better than the previous generation PS4 (1.84 teraflops) and Xbox One (1.4 teraflops).
In short, the performance of Apple’s entry-level laptop chip is somewhere in between the previous generation and current generation of games consoles. If I was Sony or Microsoft, I would see Apple as a real threat. And if the rumours of a new, more powerful Apple TV are true, then they are months away from an unbelievably compelling gaming ecosystem.
Remember, iPhone and iPad games can be relatively-easily adapted to work on M1, and many such games are already cross-platform with Apple TV. You can even connect your Playstation or Xbox controller, for a console-like experience.
Console quality games that you can play on your iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, or Mac, with seamless handoff between devices? That’s pretty awesome if you ask me. Apple is well positioned to take advantage of this, with a huge library of games already available for iOS, and its Apple Arcade game subscription service (now also bundled into Apple One, the Spotify-killer).
IT managers generally don’t like to manage mixed ecosystems of Mac and Windows PCs, especially if they rely on Microsoft products (which generally work far better on Windows).
However, Macs have always been a compelling choice for business. Any IT department that has bought a large number of cheap Windows laptops knows that this is a false economy. Macs, although more expensive to purchase, hold their value better and thus can be depreciated over longer, are far more reliable than PCs, are not as vulnerable to Cybersecurity threats, and for certain use cases (music production, graphic design, and video editing for example), they have better software available.
Many IT managers still won’t want to adopt the new Macs, but because of their new capabilities, users will love them even more. This user demand may push organisations to embrace Macs or perhaps even get rid of Windows altogether. An Apple-only environment is far easier to manage than a Windows-only one.
In summary then, M1 is a huge leap for Apple with implications far beyond the Macs released this week. It is a leapfrog moment for Apple, which has long been in the lead for mobile chips, and has now moved ahead of AMD and Intel in terms of laptop chips. It won’t be much longer before they occupy pole position for desktop-class machines too. After that? The sky’s the limit.