Nov 9, 2020 - Technology

Why Apple's shift to homegrown chips matters

Illustration of a tree with Apple logo shaped computer chips dangling from the branches. 
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

At a Tuesday event Apple is expected to announce the first Macs to be powered by the same kind of Apple-designed chips already used for iPhones and iPads.

The big picture: While Apple will make a lot of noise about its move away from Intel processors, the more flawlessly the company executes the transition, the less consumers will even notice.

Yes, but: Pulling that off will require great tools from Apple and tons of work on the part of software developers.

Why it matters: Shifting processors could allow Apple cost savings and design flexibility down the road, but it creates short-term uncertainty for consumers and some headaches for the Mac ecosystem — plus an opportunity for Windows if the effort stumbles.

Apple has predicted the overall transition should take about two years and has promised to support Intel-powered Macs "for years to come."

Between the lines: Apple has to accomplish several things with the new Macs.

  1. Prove that the first of these new Macs can already offer a combination of battery life and power that exceeds its current computers. That's important because there will certainly be other trade-offs in the form of apps that either don't work at all or have to be run using emulation, which typically creates a big drag on performance.
  2. Demonstrate that outside developers are committed to moving key software over in a timely manner. The company is off to a good start, having already demonstrated early work from Adobe and Microsoft to get their mainstay programs natively running on Apple silicon.
  3. Show other Mac developers that it will be a manageable task for them to do the same.
  4. Convince enough buyers to snap up these initial Apple chip-powered machines to encourage those developers to move quickly.

Of note: Apple is moving to an architecture already well known to developers, since the processor belongs to the same chip family that runs in the iPhone and iPad. That should also make it easier than ever for mobile developers to bring their apps to the Mac.

History lesson: Such transitions can be tough, but no company has done this better or more often than Apple.

  • In the mid-1990s, Apple moved from the original Motorola chips that powered the first Macs to PowerPC chips, which were a joint IBM-Motorola effort.
  • Apple moved from the original Mac OS to the Unix-based OS X operating system in the early 2000s.
  • Apple shifted from PowerPC to Intel chips starting in 2005.

The bottom line: This is all about execution, but Apple has a lot of experience to rely on.

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