Apple M1 and the future

This past week, Apple announced their first ARM M1 based computers, also called “Apple silicon”. As expected, they’re pretty good. Not so expected is just how much better they are than the previous Intel-based machines. It’s an understatement to say that the Intel machines were blown away (somewhat to my chagrin).

How will this play out in the future? That depends on what everyone else is doing. And I feel they’re not doing much at all. Apple is also not going to share these processors with their competitors, so that leaves them in the dust for now.

What is Intel going to do? Develop their own ARM based line of processors? I think yes, but they’re 5-10 years behind. They’ve known about Apple’s desire and push to create ARM desktop and laptop processors since, well, a decade. About as long as we’ve all known about it. And still, they have nothing to show for it.

Even if Intel had an ARM processor in development in secret for a while, they haven’t had a useful ARM processor in the market yet, so they can’t have gained experience with actual products being actually delivered to significant numbers of users. Apple has, though. All the processors they’ve delivered with iPhones and iPads since a decade are direct ancestors of the computer processor they revealed this week.

The exceptions could be Qualcomm, Samsung, and some Chinese manufacturers who have been producing ARM processors for mobile applications and embedded computing for a while, so one of those could conceivable be in a position to develop desktop computer processors on ARM within the foreseeable future. But the “regular” crowd, i.e. Intel, HP, Lenovo, Asus, and so on, don’t have any ARM processor development in-house. They really need another “Intel” that is prepared to deliver desktop and laptop class chips. But there isn’t any. I don’t think AMD is doing anything like this either.

Who else is there? Maybe NVidia. Their attempts to acquire ARM Holdings could have something to do with this. Personally, I think they’re trying to position themselves as the ARM processor vendor for all “the others”, i.e. everyone except Apple. But it will still take years before they have a product and before any computer maker has it designed into a deliverable product.

Now, Microsoft… Since Windows doesn’t run on the Apple silicon (yet), no MS products run on the Apple silicon, except Office for the Mac. One can argue that Office is all MS needs to run on the Mac, but I don’t think that’s enough. If Apple computers will dominate the market in performance, and everything indicates they will, then Windows will absolutely need to run natively on Apple silicon. Too many professional tools are entirely Windows-based. MS does have an ARM version of Windows already, but they haven’t said anything about supporting Apple’s new computers.

Since it seems Apple will dominate the high performance desktop and laptop scene for years to come, many performance-dependent professional users will get Apple computers, if they hadn’t already. The first games ported to Apple silicon will also completely out-class any games running on Windows/Intel machines, so Apple computers may actually become real gaming machines, too.

This will put all other computer vendors at a significant disadvantage until another vendor can provide them with similarly performing ARM processors. But how long will that take? One year? I doubt it. Five years? I think that’s more likely. Never?1 Maybe, since the competition may well remain one or more years behind from now on, even if they get ARM processors from someone else.

  1. “Never” meaning a significant number of years.

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