Apple Wants To Do It All (And Screw All Its Vendors)

With a new platform, Apple can make it easier for developers to merge iOS and macOS apps into one. According to a recent report from Mark Gurman on Bloomberg News, this project, dubbed “Marzipan,” hopes to encourage development and boost App Store revenue by offering developers the opportunity to write one application and have it run on all of Apple’s platforms in a “single binary.” Initially, iOS developers will be able to have their iOS apps run on MacOS. The target date for this new platform is reported to be 2021.

This will likely lay the groundwork for an Arm-based Mac by allowing developers to target either Arm or x86 (Intel) processors. By replacing Intel processors with its own A-series of Arm processors, Apple gains more control over the platform and further differentiates itself from Windows PCs. While Apple may lose some high-end performance in desktop systems, the Arm architecture has shown to be very power efficient and still offer good performance, making it ideal for thin and light laptops. I recently had the opportunity to test the iPad Pro 12.2 inch model and it is a powerful computer with a 7nm A-12X Bionic processor. The A12X Bionic processor has eight Arm cores, seven GPU cores and a Neural Engine for machine learning tasks. I felt no loss in performance for typical productivity applications, although I’d argue that iOS is much more limited and limiting OS compared with MacOS.

The iPad Pro with the A12X Bionic processorAPPLE

As I pointed out in a previous article, Apple Rumored To Be Replacing Intel With Its Own Chips, Apple went from the Motorola 68000 architecture used in the original 1984 Macintosh computers to the Apple/ IBM /Motorola designed PowerPC in 1994. Then, after 12 years, Apple transitioned from the PowerPC to the Intel x86 processors in 2006. This current period of using Intel Core processors is presently at 13 years. A platform transition in 2020 or 2021 is overdue.

Migrating the Mac to Arm will not be without challenges, but Apple typically prefers control over its ecosystem as much as possible and likes to cut out suppliers. For example, after years of using the Imagination Technology PowerVR graphics IP, the company announced it had developed its own GPU and would no longer be paying Imagination licensing royalties. It’s also widely rumored that Apple is planning to build its own cellular modem after it announced plans to build a campus in San Diego, right in the backyard of its original modem supplier, and market leader, Qualcomm. Apple arbitrarily decided not to pay FRAND royalties on its iPhones to Qualcomm, and instead has decided to sue Qualcomm. Because of the suit, Intel now provides the modems for Apple’s iPhone and iPad products today. But for how much longer? Apple may feel too reliant on Intel at this time.

Another reason for Apple to move to Arm is the slowing of Moore’s Law. Process shrinks are getting fewer and farther in between. The future will require more investment in new architectures and more heterogeneous computing. Intel has been slow to adopt heterogeneous computing whereas AMD, Nvidia, Qualcomm, and others are well along in this development. Apple can also change the definition of a PC with its own processor.

PCs now trail smart phones in advancing personal technology. Smartphone processors include DSPs and neural net processors, as well as multiple sensors, along with the standard CPU, GPU and I/O and memory. The move from Intel x86 to its A-Series processors is an opportunity for Apple to reinvent the Mac and make it more user-centric. It could mean computers that are more portable, more flexible, and more intuitive. This would really be an opportunity for Apple to differentiate itself from the rest of industry even further. Arm CPU cores are also making large strides in performance as exhibited by the Neoverse cores Arm developed for cloud servers and communications equipment. The Intel x86 processor instruction set has no inherent advantage in performance, it’s just that Intel keeps refining the cores and adding new extensions. But Arm is catching up fast while maintaining a more efficient performance per watt.

Apple is also missing out on the Always-Connected PC (ACPC) opportunity, because there are no Macs that include a cellular modem. Qualcomm and Microsoft have been shipping Windows on Arm platforms with built in modems. Instead, MacOS requires the PC to be tether to a smart phone or an external modem, which is less than ideal. Having used an ACPC, I find the convenience of not tethering to my phone or finding a hotspot, very convenient, freeing and also more secure.

Along with its own A-series processors, Apple may, at some point in the future, build its own cellular modem technology. Apple could eventually integrate the cellular modem into the A-Series processor, as companies like Qualcomm, MediaTek, and Samsung have done for years. That said, Apple is so far behind on modem technology development, it will take at least 3 years for them to deliver a 5G chipset, while Qualcomm has one today.

This would it be opportunity for Apple to bring some real innovation to the Mac, not some mildly interesting Touch Bar. It would also tightly couple the entire Apple ecosystem from phone to tablet to PC all with one seamless Apple cloud backend. No other vendor has that capability because no other vendor controls all its hardware and its software. Companies like Samsung control their smart phone and PC hardware and can layer some custom software on top of the Android and Windows OS but cannot go as deep in integration as Apple. Microsoft’s Surface still is constrained by the Intel processors it can buy.

Is this rumor just another (real) Apple TV or the Apple autonomous car? Intel is scrambling to reinvent its processor designs and has hired new architects to lead that effort. As a result, Intel is about to go on a very inventive stretch with a new discrete GPU, new chip architectures, new AI/ML chips, and a new heterogeneous compute paradigm. The real question is whether Intel’s radical makeover it already too late for Apple, which has committed to go down its own path. At this point in time, nobody outside Apple can say for sure. My bet is that Apple has already made its commitment to its own A-Series long term. Tim Cook seems devoted more to cutting supply chain costs than to working with suppliers to build better products. Why else would it get into a legal warwith market leader Qualcomm just when the new 5G standard is taking off? That decision will keep Apple from having 5G in 2019. Cutting Intel processors out of Mac for its own A-Series processors will undoubtedly lower supply chain costs, and I see no evidence Apple will cut the price of the Mac.

At this year’s WWDC, we may finally get a better idea if there’s a future for MacOS on x86.

Kevin Krewell

Principal Analyst, TIRIAS Research

Twitter: @Krewell

The author and members of the TIRIAS Research staff do not typically hold equity positions in any of the companies mentioned, but the author does hold a small long position in AAPL. TIRIAS Research tracks and consults for companies throughout the electronics ecosystem from semiconductors to systems and sensors to the cloud.