The Most Apple Thing Ever
It is possibly the most Apple (AAPL) thing ever that they announced the transition of the Mac to ARM hardware from Intel (INTC), and never once mentioned ARM in the keynote address at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). It was 30 minutes into the more tech-heavy “State of the Platforms” before ARM was mentioned, and that was just a reference to ARM Linux builds in virtual machines, not the chips. To be fair, Apple only uses the ARM instruction set, not the core designs, preferring their own. But these are not ARM chips, according to Apple, but rather “Apple Silicon.” I have adjusted my style guide.
I Figured They Were Pretty Far Along, But…
It was two years ago in September when the iPad Pro was released with the new Apple A12X system on a chip (SoC) powering it. Once it got into the wild, people realized something amazing: the chip was faster than the Intel hardware in the MacBook Air announced at the same event, and used far less power as well. It also costs Apple much less.
Since then, the countdown to Apple Silicon in Macs has been on. Many people, including me, expected the announcement at the 2019 WWDC, since it seemed like the chips were so far along already. Everyone assumed that, like with the PowerPC to Intel transition, they already had multiple years of macOS running on Apple Silicon hardware internally, and that turned out to be true.
But Apple is the most patient company ever. They do not care about my expectations, only that the product is ready, and that the user experience is great out of the gate. There are so many details that go into that, many of which did not even occur to me in June 2019, or even 2 weeks ago. But Apple thinks of everything.
Apple is already very far along here, even farther than I expected, and I expected a lot. I think this is going to go even more smoothly than the PowerPC to Intel transition, and that was very smooth.
This is another milepost in my central long-term Apple bull thesis: no tech company is better prepared for the future, whatever that may bring.
A Quick Note On The Rest of WWDC
Apple Silicon in Macs is a challenge for the entire PC industry including Intel, AMD (AMD), Microsoft, (MSFT), Dell (DELL), HP (HP) and everyone else. But it only a small part of Apple.
Apple annual reports.
The Mac is now only 10% of Apple’s top line, so even big moves here will not have a large effect on the consolidated numbers. To be clear, we are still talking about $26 billion in fiscal 2019, the Mac’s best year yet.
There were a host of other announcements that are being overshadowed by the Apple Silicon Macs, and they are actually more important for Apple’s business – those blue and red lines above, also known as 90% of Apple’s top line. So I will cover the rest in a separate article next week.
But a preview: there is convergence in the platforms for users, but much more so for developers. Implications abound. More next week.
I covered this pretty extensively a couple of weeks ago, but here’s the short version. That linked article has more background on ARM and the broader picture for all tech, but here I’m only going to focus on Apple’s end.
We are in the middle of a very long term shift in technology away from Intel’s x86 platform, dominant since the early 1980s. This is a slow revolution in 3 phases:
- Phase 1: Intel and AMD lose out on a huge opportunity and allow ARM SoCs to dominate smartphones and tablets. This is water under the bridge.
- Phase 2: ARM chips begin to show up in PCs, and even the data center. At first this is very small but the cost, customization and power-savings opportunities keep giving customers a reason to use ARM chips. This is where we are now.
- Phase 3: It’s less clear at AMD, but at Intel, PCs are still the biggest source of revenue. The data center is growing fast, and has higher margins. ARM chips are attacking from above and below in both their key markets. Eventually, the x86 platform becomes irrelevant.
This is a very long-term trend that began with the introduction of the first iPhone 13 years ago, and we are somewhere around halfway through it. But I believe we have passed the point of no return. And Apple’s move here is another milestone.
The first iPhone had an ARM SoC, probably from Samsung powering it. Pretty much instantly, because they are Apple, Apple wanted a divorce. They realized letting Samsung or Qualcomm (QCOM) control the roadmap to their most important component was a dead end. It would never allow them differentiate themselves from the competition in all the ways they would like.
So in 2008, with iPhone not yet a year old, Apple bought PA Semi. PA was designing low power SoCs with a different instruction set, but Jobs liked the talent, so he paid $278 million for them and whatever IP they wound up using. This turned out to be one of Apple’s best investments ever.
That group formed the initial core of Apple Silicon design. The first Apple Silicon SoC, the A4, showed up in iPhone 4 in June 2010, 2 years after the acquisition. It took Apple 2 years to go from acquisition to powering their phone with a chip as good or better than Qualcomm’s or Samsung’s, and now the A13 is widely considered best-in-class.
Side note: For anyone who still thinks Apple has any intention of remaining a Qualcomm customer for cellular radio chips by the end of their current agreement, I am here to tell you the clock is ticking. Apple’s strong preference is to eat the last years of the 6-year contract and use their own, based off the IP and talent they bought off Intel, some of the last dollars Intel will see from Apple. There is a lesson there for Qualcomm, which they should have already learned in 2010.
But I digress.
We got much less detail here than on software. The point of WWDC is to let developers know what’s coming in the upcoming fall OS releases, and in this case, this major hardware transition. At the beginning, they launched the new iPhone here, but then switched to a fall launch. Since then, the hardware announcements are minimal, and geared towards pros. There were lots of hints in the presentations, and more in the OS betas, but full details on the hardware will have to wait for product announcements.
Why does Apple love to roll their own? The simple answer, as with so many things Apple, is control. They get to make the chip they want for their priorities and customers, not Intel’s or Qualcomm’s. But it’s even more specific than that, and I believe we are really going to see this come into sharp focus with the upcoming Mac Apple Silicon.
The A13 powers all the current model iPhones, even the $399 SE, which should tell you how little it costs Apple. The A12X is in all the current model iPads. The transition kits that Apple is selling to developers right now (I applied for one over the weekend, though I am not hopeful) is a Mac Mini chassis with an “A12Z,” which is likely a cousin to the iPad chip. But I don’t think that’s what winds up in what will be sold to the public.
For what it’s worth, the A12Z looks to have 8 cores, split evenly between the high-efficiency and high-performance cores.
Apple Video Screenshot
We’re designing a family of SoCs designed specifically for the Mac. Just like we did for the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch, we’re making sure the chips we build are tailored for the unique needs of the Mac.
-Sri Santhanam, VP of Apple’s Silicon Engineering Group
I think we are looking at a new line of SoCs that have been worked on for years at Apple. At first chips may be shared across lines, but I think they are moving towards SoCs purpose-designed for the device they go into. I think the first of that will come for specific chassis that they have been developing for this moment. There’s 3 examples here, and to be clear, I am speculating:
The 2017 13″ MacBook was a failure for 3 reasons: the Intel hardware was awful; it had only 1 external port for everything; the price was way too high considering the size and aforementioned limitations. I always thought this was a dry run for the type of laptop they may want to build for the low end of their line, a “Mac SE,” once they switched to ARM.
Apple Silicon solves all 3 problems. It is much cheaper and more powerful than the Intel hardware, and uses less power. This means they don’t have to fill every cubic millimeter with battery to get the iPad-like battery life. That leaves room and thermal overhead for more ports and features, and maybe a better display too, all in the same super lightweight chassis. The price will be much lower, and competitive with 13″ PC laptops. This may have a special SoC, just for it, that emphasizes efficiency, and makes the whole thing possible.
The next 2 are even more speculative. Starting with the MacBook Pro, which is the king of the Apple lineup. One thing I know is that Apple will not be doing anything but making this model better in this transition – it is the most-used model by Apple employees, so they really care. Rumors are that one of the first Apple Silicon Macs will be the 13″ MacBook Pro, which may sport more generic Apple Silicon like the 24″ iMac that is also rumored to be coming first.
I think it is telling that the smaller screen models come first, because I think that tells us that Apple has some very large plans for GPUs, but those will have to wait for a bit.
Which brings me to the 16″ MacBook Pro, a form factor Apple has never had before. Back in 1993 they had a 12″ PowerBook and a 17″ PowerBook, which led to this memorable Yao Ming, Verne Troyer, and Jeff Goldblum ad:
But since 2012, it’s been all 13″ and 15″ laptops from Apple, and they seemed pretty happy with that. Then in 2019 came the 16″ MacBook Pro. I think this chassis, and whatever SoC is being designed for it, have been developed together, and that the combination is going to blow people away when it arrives.
Finally, Apple says they are going to transition the entire line, so this means the Mac Pro, too. A quick story:
Nuvia is a private company founded by Gerard Williams, who formerly ran Apple’s chip design unit. They are being pretty secretive right now, but Williams has assembled an all star team of chip designers and ARM software developers, and they have some pretty large ambitions for ARM in the data center, so they’ve gotten a lot of buzz.
Apple sued Nuvia, and Nuvia sued them back. I’d like to recount for you a very brief conversation my Right and Left Brains had when they heard the news that Apple was suing Nuvia.
LEFT BRAIN: That’s weird. Apple doesn’t have a data center chip.
RIGHT BRAIN: No, dummy. This means Apple has a workstation chip they are going to put in a Mac Pro.
This will likely come last in the transition, but I really can’t wait to see what Apple can do when power and thermal constraints are far lower than in all their other products.
That is not a typo, but how chip designers talk about the basic CPU design of the modern SoC. Developed in 2011 by ARM, the idea was simple. Most of what users do on a smartphone CPU uses a single core, and doesn’t require a ton of performance. But sometimes they use apps that want full-bore multi-core performance.
So the modern smartphone CPU has big and LITTLE cores. The LITTLEs get used for most things, and are very power-efficient, and why most people get pretty decent battery life on a modern smartphone, or at least better than it used to be. But when needed, the bigs get called in. They have higher power draw, but also higher performance. Apple refers to this as “asymmetric cores,” and calls their implementation Thunder and Lightning. While the high performance, high power draw Lightning cores are nothing to sneeze at, Apple has put a ton of work into the high efficiency Thunders for their smartphone SoCs.
But one thing that was pretty apparent in the breakout sessions was that Apple has also put a lot of work into the big cores, most of which we’ve never seen because they are for devices without the thermal and power constraints of a smartphone.
Jon Masters is the VP of Software at Nuvia, that company I just told you Apple is suing. He is one of those all stars I mentioned. Even though Apple is suing his startup, he is too smart to tell you anything but the truth here. These CPUs are going to be unbelievable.
But it’s not just the CPU, because these SoCs are going to be loaded.
WWDC Video screenshot
This is not even everything that is going to get packed into this little slice of silicon. Allow me to highlight the really important stuff, from Apple’s perspective:
- The secure enclave and crypto accelerators will help Apple with their security and privacy goals. It also obviates the need for the secondary T2 security chip which overlaps in function, saving cost and space on the motherboard.
- Apple has put a lot of time and effort into their machine learning cores and neural engine. Among many other things, it also helps with their security and privacy goals.
- Power management, always.
- Look at all the audio, video and camera stuff on there.
Which brings me to…
The GPU gets its own section, because it effects another Apple supplier, AMD, and also it sparked a lot of conversation in the comments of my Apple Silicon preview. The question that came up is whether Apple’s GPUs can compete with AMD’s, and whether they would replace AMD in the whole line.
I think after watching all the WWDC videos we can conclude the answers are yes and yes. They are going to replace all AMD hardware as well as Intel hardware, and it will be as good if not better than what it was replacing.
That last part is more speculation, but it comes from the fact that they would not stop talking about how great the graphics performance is during the State of the Platforms. They brought it up in numerous contexts. They also showed very quick demos of high end gaming, Unity, 3D animation, graphics and video editing software, all running extremely smoothly, some of them in Rosetta 2, the emulation mode. This is all pretty impressive. Had it been a live event, there would have been fainting in the aisles when they showed Unity, which is demanding stuff.
Because the GPU in Apple Silicon is so much faster and more efficient…
– Apple Engineers, repeatedly during WWDC
During the breakout sessions on Metal, Apple’s graphics acceleration library, the quoted phase kept coming up over and over again at the beginning of sentences. They believe that the tile-based rendering and unified memory architecture make the GPU so much more efficient, it does not need super high clock speeds and a giant memory buffer.
Apple Video Screenshot. In which Apple explains the difference between tile-based deferred rendering and AMD/Nvidia/Intel immediate mode rendering, and it all goes right over my head.
I don’t have much to say that’s definitive again, except what can be gleaned from what is mostly a software presentation, but they obviously think they have a winner for their GPUs. As always, it remains to be seen, but AirPower aside, Apple is not one to over-promise. Not like this.
Apple is Intel’s number 4 customer at around $5 billion a year, but they are only AMD’s 12th biggest, according to Bloomberg, at $142 million a year, or less than 2% of AMD’s revenue. AMD can’t be happy about that, but it’s not a blow to the jaw like the 7% of revenue that Intel is losing in this transition.
The Software: Developers’ Perspective
This is the core of every WWDC. Apple is giving developers a 3-month head start before the new operating systems are in the wild, and that’s why, in more normal years, developers spend a lot of money to be there in person. Most of what they had to announce has nothing to do with Apple Silicon in Macs, so we’ll save that for the next article.
Here was my take last December, after Microsoft’s misfire with the Surface Pro X, an ARM-based laptop/tablet hybrid.
This is why I still believe that any sort of earth-moving device for the ARM laptop will have to come from Apple…
The missing piece is the software, but this is where Apple has a huge advantage. In the first place, many core Mac apps are made by Apple, so the company can do as it pleases here. Moreover, it already has a large and always growing number of apps and a large developer community for ARM hardware in iOS and iPadOS. Though still at a very early stage of development, Project Catalyst allows developers to write apps for macOS, iPadOS and iOS all at once in a single development environment. This is a huge resource to tap, but it is not a slam dunk. Convincing developers it will be worth it will be a huge hill to climb still, but they are far ahead of Microsoft already.
Apple is a very patient company with a ton of cash. I don’t think it will make a move here until the third-party software is more settled, and that means, at a minimum, Office and the important parts of Creative Cloud, beginning with a full Photoshop version. Adobe (ADBE) seems more receptive, beginning to port Photoshop over to iPadOS, an ARM platform. But Microsoft has already told us what it thinks of that, and it is not encouraging.
I’m happy to report, that even though Microsoft could not find a way to ship a native version of Office with the Surface Pro X, they will for the first Apple Silicon Macs. This sort of tells you what Microsoft thinks of their own hardware.
Adobe is also on board, and they showed a quick demo of ARM Photoshop running very smoothly with a giant multilayer document. Likely it will take a while for the entire suite, since there’s a lot there.
As for Apple, every one of their apps, including the pro apps, will be ready.
But Apple is already so far ahead of my thinking 6 months ago. Let’s first dig into the expected and very important parts:
- Rosetta 2
- Universal binaries
- Updated Project Catalyst
Rosetta 2 is the emulation layer that will run Intel code on an Apple Silicon Mac, and there are very few limitations here. It seemed to run unbelievably fast in the demos, with unmodified games and pro apps running pretty smoothly. Of course, demos aren’t the real world. In the breakout session devoted to porting apps, the demo app ran 28% slower under Rosetta than it did when compiled for native execution, so there is a significant performance hit, but it seems like most apps will have plenty of overhead to compensate in the real world.
But that also makes Rosetta a little dangerous. Emulation layers can be a bridge to the new platform, but they can also be a crutch for lazy developers. We see this very clearly with Chromebooks, where the Android emulation layer has allowed developers to pretty much ignore developing native apps for the platform. Apple seems to have a plan for that, and we’ll get to it in a moment.
The implementation is pretty slick. Apps from the Mac App Store or that use the macOS installer have translation done at install. Other installation methods get translation done once at first run. Just-in-time compilers like Java remain on-the-fly, as there’s no way to avoid that. Fear not! Your Java apps will remain the worst on your Mac.
Universal binaries are how developers will now deliver all their apps. Data files like graphics will be shared, but the bundle contains the compiled code for both platforms. This distribution model worked very smoothly in the PowerPC to Intel transition.
Finally, Project Catalyst, which is Apple’s technology for turning iPad apps into Mac apps. Two iterations in, it remains a disappointment. I use the Twitter (TWTR) app every day, which is a Catalyst port from their iPad app, and it remains a mess, despite very frequent updates from Twitter. The new version of Catalyst for this year includes a host of improvements and new APIs, and a new console devoted using it all. Hope springs eternal.
But now Catalyst will have internal competition. In one of those details I completely overlooked in my own thinking, iOS and iPad apps will now just run natively on Macs, since they are using the same instruction set. They will all be available in the Mac App Store at launch. This is one of those huge advantages the transition brings.
I think that Apple is hoping that this is a gateway drug to Catalyst. The apps will run on a Mac, but the experience will not be the same. In the first place, there is the very different input modes of mouse/trackpad and multitouch, and this will drastically effect the user experience. But the apps will basically just be a window with a toolbar and very basic standard menus. iPad apps that support multitasking will have resizable windows, but other apps will not.
So I think Apple is hoping that developers will open up their iOS or iPad app on their Apple Silicon Mac, be disappointed, and turn to Catalyst to solve that problem. But never discount the power of lazy, as the Chromebook example shows.
Three Types of Developers
From watching the breakout sessions on porting to Apple Silicon, I came away thinking there are going to be three types of developers in this transition.
The first type are developers who have been coming the WWDC for years and actually listened to what Apple told them. They have gone through their code and gotten rid of old APIs and dependencies, and have instead updated to the very robust APIs Apple has been rolling out at a torrid pace in the past few years. For them, the transition will literally be as simple as changing one dropdown menu, and pressing a button.
The second type are developers who are similar to the first type, but in addition to Apple APIs, they are also using open source binaries under the hood. These binaries will first have to be ported and recompiled to work. Fortunately, Apple has them covered.
Apple Video Screenshot.
My favorite moments of WWDC are when they announce something that is obscure to the general public, but makes the audience at WWDC go mental. That slide would have been one of those. Apple took the time to port over all those widely used open source packages and others too, to make sure they are all ready for developers today. They’re even out there porting Google’s (GOOG) open source packages. Microsoft could not be troubled to port their own flagship software suite for the Surface Pro X. Priorities.
The final group is one using custom third-party frameworks and plug-ins, or are still using kernel extensions, low level boot-time system modifications. Apple has been discouraging both for years, and the reason is now obvious. These developers will be dependent on their third-parties to update their frameworks, and who knows how that goes. Kernel extensions will be going away soon, as they are a huge security risk, and Apple has been encouraging everyone to use the new DriverKit, which does not make low-level modifications. These developers have more of a long road than the other two, but it is mostly because they have ignored Apple’s guidelines for years now.
So there are going to be widely varying experiences among developers, and some in that final group may think making the transition is not worth the effort. That is going to be the single biggest stumbling block in the transition.
From The User’s Perspective
This of course all remains to be seen, but I think for most users, the transition is going to be pretty transparent. Apple has made the transition just about as easy as possible for developers, and Rosetta seems very robust and will largely be invisible to users.
But there are a few notable exceptions
- Apple made a point of showing off virtual machines in the keynote and State of the Platforms, but they only showed Linux machines. While there is an ARM Windows 10 build, almost all apps, even Microsoft’s, run in 32-bit emulation mode, so that may be the problem. In any event, it looks like users who depend on Windows virtual machines may have to wait. Boot Camp is probably in the dustbin of history.
- The other big hitch I already mentioned, which is kernel extensions. These are used mostly as device drivers, but for other things as well. Apple wants these gone eventually for security reasons, so anything still using kernel extensions will have to port over to DriverKit or not by supported in Apple Silicon Macs.
- Apps with plug-in architectures may also have problems, but the issues are a little complex for this article, already too long.
Adding It All Up
You just read over 4000 words! Congratulations. There’s a lot there, I know, so let me try and summarize the key points.
- Apple’s transition to ARM-based Apple Silicon in Macs is real, and it’s spectacular.
- They have been obviously working on this for many years, and are already very far along, more than I expected.
- I am especially surprised by how far along they are with third party software. Porting open source packages is a huge bonus, and one of those detail only Apple thinks of.
- It remains to be seen in the real world, but they very obviously think they have big winners in their CPUs and GPUs, and that they will be better than what they are replacing.
- It will open up a host of new design possibilities for the Mac, especially laptops.
- They have tried to make this transition very smooth for developers, but the experience will be uneven. Developers who have been listening to Apple’s recommendations over the years will have the least problems.
- For most users, this transition will be invisible.
Kicking and Screaming
Strangely, this will have more of an effect on other companies than Apple. As I noted at the top, the Mac remains only 10% of Apple’s top line, so even big changes on the Mac line will not effect the consolidated numbers much. But this move cuts a wide swath across the PC industry, dragging it, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century. Let’s review.
The PC makers will be watching this closely, but probably not making any moves just yet. They will watch these developments, and decide what to do, based on their own interests. But as Apple is rolling out new models through 2021 and 2022, if they are as good as Apple is promising, they will have to do something. If Apple is able to bring price points down without effecting gross margin, then they will really feel it.
So I don’t know how they will react, but they will have to react in some way. One thing I do know is that there are already engineers and maybe some executives at these companies who are screaming loudly on the company Slack that they need to hop on this train, and do it now, or get run over. Whether anyone will listen is another story.
The biggest hindrance is that they have made themselves dependent on third-parties, Microsoft and Intel, for all these years. Microsoft’s interest in ARM software is questionable, and there is really no good ARM laptop platform for them to adopt, Qualcomm’s being very unexciting. But if Mac sales start rising, all that will change. Maybe it will be…
Read this whole thread.
AMD is in a better spot that Intel. They are not as married to the x86 platform, and as Danilo Cominotti points out in that linked thread, they have the talent and institutional capabilities to pull it off. Read the whole thread because it is smart and interesting, and it changed my mind on the subject. It could be a huge win for them, but only if they can stop focusing on beating Intel in the data center for two seconds – the “tunnel vision” to which Danilo refers.
Intel is the biggest loser. In the first place, they are about to lose their 4th biggest customer, and over 7% of their revenue is about to evaporate. But this is a tumor that can metastasize and eat up the whole operation. How the PC makers react is crucial. While the data center keeps growing and has higher margins, they are still very much dependent on the PC. They have invested so much in the x86 platform, I don’t see how they can just turn. They also have problems in the data center, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
Microsoft having Office ready when the first Apple Silicon Macs hit the stores is very encouraging. But they have a lot more to do here, and maybe this is a turning point. I won’t hold my breath.
While this will not have any huge effect on Apple’s top line, it is just another layer of their technology stack that is now reaching to the sky. The stack concept is your basic “the whole is more than the sum of the parts” sort of argument. Each individual brick in the wall is not as important as how they fit together, and the structure they form in the end.
So let’s rundown not just what this does for the Mac, but for the entire Apple ecosystem of products, software and services
- It opens up huge design possibilities for the Mac, especially in laptops which are more popular than desktops and workstations.
- Apple loves control and this would give them total control over the most important thing: the future roadmap for all their SoCs.
- All their devices will now be using the same instruction set, and apps will freely move between devices. For a developer beginning a new project, writing an app for iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS all at once is incredibly simple.
- It all adds up to another reason for customers to remain in the Apple walled garden, and not even peek over the wall to see what’s outside.
- It may allow them to lower price points without impacting gross margin. Or, more gross margin. Both are good!
- Like many Apple vendors, Intel has found Apple to be a demanding and difficult customer. Intel’s production issues pop up every few years, and it slows down the Mac cycle considerably every time. This is a source of great consternation internally at Apple.
This transition began many years ago, we just couldn’t see it until last week. They were so ready for this day, it surprised even me, and I’m an absurd Apple fan boy.
This all adds up to my central Apple thesis: no technology company is better prepared for the future than Apple. Most likely in the comments, someone will angrily proclaim that Apple has not had anything really innovative since the iPhone, as if the touchscreen smartphone was not a generational product.
Someday, something will replace the touchscreen smartphone as people’s main device. I don’t know when that will be, or what that device will be. But I do know this: Apple may not have the first one, but it will be the one everyone else winds up copying.
I cannot recommend buying Apple right now, as valuations are absurd all around considering the circumstances. They are going to report a terrible Q3 in about a month, and there is no relief in sight, for them or anyone else. Their PE right this second is almost 28, and their true forward PE is likely closer to 40.
For full disclosure, I will not be selling my shares because the vast majority are pre-split and the tax bill would be large. My plan, as always, is to wait for it to go down and buy more. I have an unusually long time horizon in my thinking regarding Apple, so your mileage may vary. As the man once said, in the long run, we’re all dead.
One Last Thing…
So many of the engineers who were presenters in the breakout sessions are immigrants, and from just about everywhere in the world. It was like the United Nations General Assembly. Trump’s killing of the H1-B visa program will hurt Apple, and every other US tech company. We must stop punching ourselves in the face.
Disclosure: I am/we are long AAPL. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
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