With Apple’s “Peek Performance” event now in the rearview mirror — — and one more puzzle piece identified — — it’s becoming significantly clearer where the company is headed with its overall in-house chip strategy. Recall that Apple announced its plan to transition away from Intel chips at WWDC in June 2020, nearly two years ago.
Some recent history is worth recounting. Apple Silicon, ARM-based and comparable to its A-Series chips used in iPhones and iPads, was first revealed on Macs in November 2020. That announcement was followed up with new iterations of its M1 (Pro and Max) processors in October 2021. Apple raised the ante last week when it introduced its new M1 Ultra, essentially two cojoined M1 Max chips, for the Mac Studio, a new desktop platform aimed at professional media content developers.
While there still may be a shoe or two to drop ever the next few months (and even Apple itself has hinted as much), it’s prudent to step back and take a high-level look at the macro messages that Apple wants customers to take away from its nearly completed transition to Apple Silicon. Let’s dive in.
#1: Apple Silicon allows Apple to make better Macs
While the presence of its own silicon in Macs, MacBooks, iPhones and iPads indeed enables Apple to drive fatter margins, the company’s messaging is unabashedly focused on its assertion that its chips allow the company to build a better product. For years, Apple has frequently communicated that its power-efficient mobile chip designs have performance and power enhancement benefits because its operating system (iOS) is optimized for their use.
But better performance and efficiency are only part of the picture. In a desktop or laptop context, Apple can message that a transition to Apple Silicon allows the company to turbocharge the Mac’s proficiencies and further differentiate it from competitive non-Apple-based chip designs.
Apple dubs this aspect “deep integration” between hardware and software, a robust messaging point that Steve Jobs himself frequently made before his passing in October 2011, almost a decade before Apple Silicon was announced. Because Machine Learning Accelerators and Neural Engines are so deeply integrated into the architecture of Apple Silicon, those ingredients have a powerful baseline facilitation impact for image and speech recognition, data extraction and predictive analytics. With other technologies layered on, such as a high-quality camera processor, Secure Enclave (for best-in-class security), high-performance graphics, Touch ID, unified memory and cryptography acceleration, Apple’s toolbox for creating an immersive user experience would not be possible using non-Apple chip technology.
#2: A shared iOS and Mac architecture has enormous potential
Though I don’t think it’s as essential as the company would like people to believe, Apple has gotten enormous mileage out messaging the shared architecture benefits of Apple Silicon. This common architecture across all Apple products — — desktops, portables and mobile devices — — makes it significantly easier to write optimized software that is cross-Apple platform in nature.
In this way, apps designed for Apple’s mobile devices (iPhone and iPad) can run “natively” on Apple Silicon-based Macs. Compatible iOS can be downloaded from the Mac App Store on macOS.
While the benefits cannot be dismissed, the reality is that it’s not that common for consumers or enterprise users to run iOS apps on Mac desktops or portables. Indeed, it’s a pleasant convenience and gives Apple a great marketing point for those users who occasionally need to run an iOS app on a Mac desktop or portable. In my view, the marketing hype outweighs its actual usefulness.
Of dramatically more value to a corporate user or consumer is running Intel-based apps on Apple Silicon. Apple’s experience during its PowerPC to Intel transition over a decade ago is instructive here. Invisible to the user because it runs in the background, Apple’s Rosetta 2 software layer in macOS translates existing Intel apps to function seamlessly and effortlessly on Macs using Apple Silicon. There are some efficiency and capability benefits when apps are written natively for Apple Silicon. Still, Rosetta 2 assuages the fears of many users that their favorite macOS apps will not run on Apple Silicon-based Macs.
#3: Introduction of M1 Ultra underscores Apple’s aspirations with high-performance silicon
In the silicon area, the big news from Apple’s Peek Performance event was the company’s introduction of the M1 Ultra, which essentially combines two M1 Max into a “single” M1 Ultra.
Recognizing the non-trivial challenges and physical limitations of creating chips bigger than the M1 Max, Apple has chosen to cojoin two M1 Max chips using its UltraFusion packaging architecture to scale Apple Silicon to substantially higher performance levels. Kudos to the Apple marketing team for coming up with (once again) a branding term that will likely stick with users who have no technical appreciation for the interconnect technology needed to accomplish this feat. While Apple has filed a patent application for its approach, the method isn’t new: other companies (including AMD) have created similar silicon interposer interconnection technology for PC-class chips. Assuming Apple’s claim that its approach will deliver 4X the bandwidth of competing interpose technologies is validated by third-party benchmarks, Apple will get credit for “mainstreaming” the acceptance of this technology. Add that to the long list of “innovative” technologies (e.g., capacitive touch, touchpads, MagSafe, etc.) that Apple has successfully introduced to the market but was not the originating developer of the technology.
A few closing thoughts
In just two years, Apple has nearly completed a transition to a new chip technology that many observers thought might be almost impossible a decade ago. Indeed, its massive success in the mobile device space created a foundation for the company to set the stage for its highly competitive silicon in the desktop and mobile product categories. Utilizing its new M1 Ultra “cojoined” chip solution, its Mac Studio platform demonstrates that the company can flex its design and engineering prowess outside of the core M1 architecture itself.
Apple’s chief challenge over the next few years, at least from a marketing messaging standpoint, will be to resist the temptation of introducing too many flavors of its chips and potentially confusing users. Currently, its base M1, M1 Pro and M1 Max chips are unsymmetrically available across its desktop (Mac Mini and iMac) and portable lineups, with the M1 Ultra reserved for its new Mac Studio, primarily because of the thermal requirements that the M1 Ultra requires. Apple’s habit of sporadically refreshing its products can often be frustrating to customers who don’t make a purchase decision at the instant moment after an Apple event.
Moreover, Apple will be facing stronger competition from a rejuvenated Intel receiving solid notices for its recently introduced 12th generation Alder Lake processors, a cadence that began about six months ago. Intel’s ongoing Evo design work, which essentially is an ingredient list of the “must-have” features that a portable must have to be considered “best in class” from performance, fast charging, instant wake and connectivity standpoints, has resulted in scores of compelling portable designs from the top echelon of PC manufacturers. Often, these innovative products hit price points that Apple would chuckle at.
The fascinating question is what Apple plans to do with its premium Mac Pro, which utilizes Intel Xeon processors but did not get M1 Ultra support. The Mac Pro form factor has internal upgradeability benefits that the new Mac Studio lacks. This fact suggests that a “next-generation” iteration of Apple Silicon is coming, not just a Subway Sandwich concoction of slamming two chips together. That’s the $64,000 question that remains unanswered, but 2022 still has nine months to go.
Mark Vena is the CEO and Principal Analyst at SmartTech Research based in Silicon Valley. As a technology industry veteran for over 25 years, Mark covers many consumer tech topics, including PCs, smartphones, smart home, connected health, security, PC and console gaming, and streaming entertainment solutions. Mark has held senior marketing and business leadership positions at Compaq, Dell, Alienware, Synaptics, Sling Media and Neato Robotics. Mark has appeared on CNBC, NBC News, ABC News, Business Today, The Discovery Channel and other media outlets. Mark’s analysis and commentary have appeared on Forbes.com and other well-known business news and research sites. His comments about the consumer tech space have repeatedly appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, TechNewsWorld and other news publications.
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