Apple is preparing to host its third, and likely final, hardware event of the year on Tuesday, Nov. 10, and while it won’t feature an iPhone or Apple Watch, it’s no less important to the company’s future. That’s because this event will reportedly feature Apple’s (AAPL) first MacBooks with their own custom ARM-based processors.
The move will have a massive impact on how Apple markets and sells its Mac line of products, and deals an enormous blow to Intel’s (INTC) ego, though not a huge hit to its bottom line. The two companies have worked together since 2005 when they teamed up to help Macs better take on Windows-based machines, and released the first Intel-powered system in 2006.
It’s sure to be a major moment for Apple, and one that will improve the tech giant’s ability to tailor its laptops and desktops to its liking.
Three new Macs on the way
Apple’s event is titled “One more thing,” which plays off the late co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs’ famous tagline at company events where he would roll out a final, surprise product or service. This is Apple’s third hardware event of the fall, so the phrase is definitely apropos.
As for what to expect, according to Bloomberg, the show will feature three new Macs powered by Apple’s own custom ARM-based processors. The report indicates that the 13-inch MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and 16-inch MacBook Pro will be the first systems to get Apple’s new chips.
What’s more, the MacBooks’ processors will be based on the same A14 chips found in Apple’s current iPhone 12 and the 4th-generation iPad Air. Making the switch isn’t as easy as pulling out Intel’s chips and dropping in Apple’s own models, though.
Developers will have to rework their apps to ensure they run natively on the new Apple silicon. In the meantime, the company is providing an interim solution in Rosetta 2, a piece of software that will act as a kind of emulator for Intel-based apps to work on the new ARM-based systems.
The transition will be interesting to follow, as Apple’s Intel-based machines have become widely recognized for their performance capabilities in graphics design and video editing. So far, we’ve only seen stage demos of how the new Macs handle heavy workloads like games or video editing, but we’ll have to wait to get our hands on the ARM-powered MacBooks to see what the changes are like in real-world settings.
Despite the internal changes, don’t expect Apple to revamp the overall design of these Macs. They’ll keep the same look and feel as the current models on the market.
Why ditch Intel?
Intel has become a bottleneck for Apple in recent years. The company has seen repeated setbacks in release dates for new chip architecture, and the old Moore’s Law theory, which states that the transistors on a processor will double every two years, no longer holds water.
Intel’s current problems, which came to a head in its October earnings report, stem from its inability to upgrade its chip architecture. The company was expected to switch from its 14nm design process to a 10nm process by 2015. But it’s 2020, and there are still no 10nm desktop chips on the market. Laptop chips are available, but that’s only half of the story.
Those 7nm chips, meanwhile, have also been delayed until 2022, despite ARM and AMD (AMD) offering 7nm processors of their own already.
The smaller a processor, the less power it uses and more efficient it becomes. It also boosts overall performance. Apple has seen the capabilities of ARM’s 7nm chips in its iPhones and iPads and has clearly decided that Intel’s delays are a greater hindrance than it’s willing to accept.
How hard will this hurt Intel?
So what does that mean for Intel? Well, outside of a major shot to the company’s ego and standing in the eyes of industry observers and investors, Apple’s move won’t crush the chip maker.
According to IDC, Apple spent $2.9 billion on Intel processors for its desktop and laptop lines in 2019, which made up 4% of the company’s total revenue and just 10.6% of its PC processor revenue.
What’s more, IDC analyst Shane Rau says that Intel has been preparing for this move, and the general shift away from PCs for years already.
“While Apple's preparations for the transition were in full view of the market, Intel would have seen those preparations in the larger context of overall decline in the importance of the PC in the internet system landscape,” he wrote via email.
“Accordingly, in the past three years, Intel has pivoted to a data-centric, [total addressable market] expansion strategy that has moved its center of gravity toward datacenter infrastructure, edge infrastructure, and IoT endpoints and away from clients (phones, tablets, and PCs) in general and PCs specifically.”
As for how the move will impact Apple, Gartner research VP Alan Priestley told Yahoo Finance that there’s still not enough proof that Apple’s chips can keep up with Intel’s in the desktop and laptop markets.
“We have yet to see how well Apple’s new products will compete with existing and future x86 based PCs, also Intel continues to evolve its PC processors to meet changing market demands,” he said via email.
“Software compatibility also remains a big unknown; while key apps may be available at launch, many users utilize a broad spectrum of smaller apps and tools, all of which will need to be ported to Arm to deliver best performance and user experience.”
For now, we’ll just have to sit back and wait for Apple’s big show to find out the answers to those questions.
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