The Deeper Reason ARM-Based Macs Hurt Intel

Image of the 2020 MacBook Air with magic keyboard

At first blush, the financial impact of Apple abandoning Intel CPUs for its Macs looks relatively minor. But there’s a deeper reason ARM-Based Macs Hurt Intel. And it’s a whopper.

At Bloomberg, Tae Kim reports: Apple’s Mac Chip Switch Is Double Trouble for Intel.

The Deeper Reason ARM-Based Macs Hurt Intel

Author Kim starts with what we’ve surmised all along.

The most obvious is the direct impact of losing revenue as the sole processor supplier for Apple’s PC line. The Mac currently represents 12% of the U.S. PC market based on units sold, according to the latest Gartner data….

At first blush, the financial losses for Intel seem manageable. However, there are second-order effects that may prove more worrisome.

The Deeper Reason ARM-Based Macs Hurt Intel
Not the A13, but a future variant of the A14 expected in Macs in 2021.

The second, not-so-obvious impact is more of a headache for Intel. Author Kim gets right to it.

Currently, Intel dominates the high-profit-margin data-center business, where it sells server chips to cloud-computing providers and corporations….

Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, has long said the main reason Arm chips have struggled to gain traction in servers was because there weren’t any Arm-based PC platforms at critical mass….

Now, though, with Mac shifting to Arm-based chips, developers will have tens of millions of Arm-based machines at their finger tips, offering a thriving ecosystem for the up-and-coming chip architecture.

This analysis is compelling because corporate servers generally run Linux and macOS is basically FreeBSD, a UNIX cousin of Linux. Author Kim concludes:

Yes, it will take some time for Apple’s move to impact the market…. But in coming years, Intel’s key [enterprise] businesses will be threatened by Apple’s move.

I agree, and my hat is off to author Kim for this analysis.

The Week’s Apple News Debris

• Would you believe? Cult of Mac writes: “9 new iPhone models, a new Mac head for certification before WWDC.

Regarding these 9 iPhone models,

These are all thought to be variants of the iPhone 12 lineup, which, according to countless other reports, will be available in four size options with two different 5G connectivity options for different markets.

[5G Wireless Actually Has 3 Bands—How That Impacts the Next iPhone.]

The success of the iPhone SE suggests that Apple needs to cover its bases across the entire size spectrum nowadays. Hence four sizes.

2019 iMac
2019 iMac. An old design, ready for retirement? Image credit: Apple

Regarding the new iMac,

One tipster expects the machine to sport a significant redesign inspired by iPad Pro, as well as the latest AMD Navi graphics and a T2 Security Chip. It could be the biggest change for iMac in almost eight years.

That means a full screen, small bezel all-around design without the bar and Apple logo at the skirt of the display. I discussed that idea on BGM with Rene Ritchie.

[Apple Industry Analyst Rene Ritchie – TMO BGM Interview.]

5G wireless and iPhone

• Finally, if you do plan to dive into 5G wireless this year, Gene Munster writes: “5G Will Live up to the Hype, Apple Will Capitalize.

We expect it to take wireless carriers another two to three years to build out 5G coverage. At that point, Apple is set to capitalize on a massive wave of 5G-related tech spending. In our view, Apple is the best way to invest in the 5G cycle.

Isn’t that always so with emerging technology?

Particle Debris is generally a mix of John Martellaro’s observations and opinions about a standout event or article(s) of the week followed by a discussion of articles that didn’t make the TMO headlines, the technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holiday weeks.

12 thoughts on “The Deeper Reason ARM-Based Macs Hurt Intel

  • Here is why: A species is rewarded with a survival advantage for taking risks; individuals are rewarded with a longer lifespan for risk aversion. “
    Did you ever read the short store Frost and Fire by Ray Bradbury?
    “Time is the main topic in the short story “Frost and Fire”, whose original 1946 title was “The Creatures That Time Forgot”It is about the inhabitants of a planet (probably Mercury) whose proximity to the Sun shortens their lifespan to exactly eight days. They are born with “racial memory”, able to talk and think, and knowing they descend from the survivors of a spaceship crash, whose remains are visible on top of a hill. If they could reach it without being burned by the sunlight radiations, would they be able to prolong life?
    The story is set in the future, but the dilemma of protagonists Sim and Lyte is our own. We know that our natural life is limited. If we choose to enjoy the little time we have, we risk conforming and remaining ignorant (“just sit and talk and eat”, Sim complains). If we choose to employ our time acquiring knowledge and questioning things, we risk dying without having ever enjoyed life. How to ensure our time is meaningful?”

    1. Lee:
      No, I have to admit, I have not read it; indeed I’ve read less Bradbury than I care to admit, focussing more on Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, and Bova in my youth (also because The Martian Chronicles were always checked out of the library at my boarding school). 
      The Frost and Fire is a brilliant metaphor, not surprisingly coming from a brilliant visionary. I’ve added to my reading list. Thank you.
      In my personal experience, the happiest individuals are those who forget themselves, and who, casting aside morbid preoccupation and doubt, not with reckless abandon but in service to greater purpose , cast themselves into life’s ocean of opportunities, and ride its currents with a warrior’s courage and a child’s joy. It is these who, coming to life’s end, can say without trepidation or regret, ‘I gave it my all, and held nothing back’. 

  • John:
    Change is hard. 
    Were it easy, we would not require seers, prophets, visionaries, revolutionaries, leaders and social upheaval to make it so. But we do. Consistently. This fact has been co-eternal with humanity itself, which is why amongst the world’s sacred literature, one citation categorises our response to messengers in terms of ‘banishing some and slaying others’. That pretty well sums up our response to the advance guard. In today’s social media, that response might be categorised as ‘unfollowing some and lambasting others’. 
    Your lede this week from Tae Kim at Bloomberg, and both its in situ caveat that the impact of Apple switching to ARM processors will not be felt immediately in terms of second order effects on server manufacture but only over time, as well as the comments that follow in your PD column and elsewhere around the web, is a case study. We fail to see either the need for change, particularly if the status quo is ‘good enough’, and we are discomfited if not outrightly threatened by the prospect of change from the familiar known, which even if imperfect is predictable, to the unknown, which is fraught with both uncertainty and an unknown risk of failure. 
    Here is why: A species is rewarded with a survival advantage for taking risks; individuals are rewarded with a longer lifespan for risk aversion. This tension is eternal, and at times, these competing tendencies result in social, political, industrial or market instability. Change is hard.  
    In fairness, Kim’s article is listed as an opinion piece, with which the reader is free to disagree. Without getting into the particulars of the argument, it is the response to the premise that is key; that Apple’s switch of their Mac lineup to ARM processors, across the board, will have a net transformative effect on the industry rather than having a net negative effect on Apple, that has invited criticism from conservative and orthodox circles. 
    Let’s be clear: as a collective of risk averse individuals, we are driven to change by the imperative to compete for our survival. That person or that group that can achieve the same or better outcome at less cost will overtake us, subordinate us, or over-run our way of life. That’s just simple physics driving biology. And biology drives industry and the market. Objecting to the seer who figures out that a more efficient and therefore compelling solution has emerged and will inevitably overtake our way of life, and sidelining or silencing that seer will not stop that change from overtaking us. If anything, the sooner we embrace that change, the more likely we are not to be left behind, but to prosper. 
    Apple are moving to ARM because of superior performance at lower energy consumption, and because they want to control their whole widget, which is not unrelated. As a global brand, Apple define not simply what is acceptable, but establish new norms and even what is ‘cool’, and therefore compelling. A less expensive device that uses less power but outperforms a more expensive, more power-intensive device in key real world performance metrics is compelling This, in turn, becomes unstoppable. It affects what survives and what dies (for references, see BlackBerry, digital cameras, and portable music players that were not iPod…amongst a much longer casualty list). 
    Of note, that casualty list occurred before Apple became the tech juggernaut that they are now. When Apple decided, for example, to make their A7 chipset for the iPhone 64-bit, the world was compelled to respond either by following suit, or by compensating with more specs, lower price or all of the above. Today, Apple have broken through the 10nm barrier to reportedly 5nm ARM processors It doesn’t matter that they did it outside of the X86 architecture so long as their solution can be scaled to mainstream computing use case. The industry has to respond, and it will. It must compete for survival. Mind you, survival instinct is kneaded into biology, and biology drives industry and the market. 
    If Intel cannot respond and keep pace, first in PC chipsets, but inevitably in servers (hence the inertia forecast by Kim), they will be relegated to yesterday’s technology and will be overrun by a generation irreverent of Intel’s illustrious past and relentlessly driven towards their own brighter future. If Linus Torvalds is correct, that the only reason why ARM chips have failed to gain traction in servers is an absence of critical mass of ARM in PCs, then Apple are set, once again, to go critical and ignite a revolution. 

  • Many of the servers I supported back in the day did run Linux or other *nix OSs. But those were often running virtual machines, many of which were Windows Server systems. *nix compatibility is only part of the issue.

  • Let’s hope this whole Apple ARM chip design works out better than the PowerPC RISC thing did. The whole PowerPC development was supposed to stay way ahead of the Intel CISC (x86) processors. In the end there wasn’t much difference, the devices cost more than the Intel devices, and the whole process came to a dreary end after a lot of promises up front. The new ARM Macs better be able to run MS Office without re-booting the machine, and without a big performance hit.

    1. Exactly. Compatibility with the x86 Intel (90% of the worldwide market) is a must. Either that or switch to Windows, which we do not like, but will be forced since our productivity workflow is top priority.

  • Server world is basically Dell, HP and Super Micro. None of the big three are capable of running Mac OS X. So, not sure what she is taking about. All these servers are using Intel Processors and run Windows Server or Linux. Dell and HP could care less about Arm in the server world. Loss of Apple as an Intel client will not effect Intel at all.
    Dell and Intel are very open about product roadmaps for the future for their enterprise clients. Apple is always secretive playing it close to the vest with product releases thus, never really a good enterprise partner. Apple dropped their server line years ago out of disinterest. Small handful in enterprise have used Mac Mini’s as servers but nothing to make a dent in the server world.
    Dell, HP and Super Micro don’t have issues with Intel’s processor roadmap for future releases, just seems to be Apple. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Apple and a Mac user but, Intel gets a lot of blame for Apple’s own short comings in paying attention to Mac upgrades. Apple’s eye has been on iOS for years as a profit center with Mac OS and Mac hardware releases taking the back seat. Blame should go to Apple for not paying attention to the Mac and not Intel!
    Dell gets an A in my book for designing and manufacturing hardware that is repairable, scalable and upgradable. Apple gets an F in this area with making devices that are no longer upgradable or easily repaired. Apple should be taken to task for this as well!
    Will Mac Book Pro’s, Mac Pro’s be able to run Windows or Linux with bootable drives with Arm? I’m thinking that Arm use at the Pro side of Apple’s products will have a detrimental effect with the dropping of Intel. Maybe just makes sense just to use Arm on Mac Books and Mac Book Air’s.
    Guess I’m just missing any advantage to using Arm in the enterprise or pro world.

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