CPU or the processor is an integral component of any computer hardware with the most important task of assigning jobs to the rest of the parts. It makes or breaks the performance power. Computers in the electronic section of stores exude their charm with eye-catching branding about their processors laden with complex numbers illustrating extreme speeds and power. For the last few years, three major players have ruled this market:
Intel: The most famous and largest processor manufacturer preferred by the likes of HP, Samsung, Dell and Apple (but only until recently). Best known for a wholistic performance and reliability, Intel has been an undisputed champion – until recently – in the processor market for personal computers and laptops.
AMD: Biggest competition to Intel with a focus on efficiency at an affordable cost. The brands mentioned under Intel have computer variants which run on AMD processors. AMD has recently begun to out-compete Intel on performance parameters and pricing, suggesting a potential market shift.
ARM: Owned by ARM Holdings, a British company, these processors hold a virtual monopoly on mobile devices like smartphones, tablets and other smart devices including but not limited to wearables. Up until this year, Apple’s iPhones and iPads had been associated with ARM-based chips.
ARM processors have a major advantage compared to traditional Intel and AMD processors. They are incredibly powerful, power efficient, and run at significantly lower temperatures eliminating the need for fans and cooling towers in most applications. However, they haven’t been able to break into the PC market because the different architecture used by them makes a lot of PC applications incompatible unless they are coded again. Microsoft attempted to use them in Surface Pro X last year, but reviewers complained of incompatibility or buggy performance with several applications that otherwise run smoothly on Intel and AMD machines. The market consensus at the time was that it would take some time before ARM processors made their way to your laptop.
That might happen sooner than we previously thought. At its annual World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) this year, Apple made a major announcement with a quintessentially Apple name – Apple Silicon. This is Apple’s own line up of ARM based chips for MacBooks, with hardware integration completed by Apple in-house, ending their dependence on Intel. Apple aims to accomplish the transition to ARM processors in two years. This marks a tectonic shift in the technology space. Once the transition is complete, for the first time in history, Apple will use the same basic architecture for the iPhone, iPad, Airpods, Apple watch, and MacBook, allowing even greater integration across platforms. It also marks a virtual end to Apple’s fourteen year-long partnership with Intel.
Experts say Apple’s decision was motivated by a lack in innovation and the inability of Intel chips to keep with the company’s design aspirations. The thinner Macbooks running Intel CPUs would often overheat, causing significant reduction in performance and increasing failure rates – an anathema for Apple’s carefully crafted image of reliability. The MacBook Pro 2018 was famously chastised for this, with reviewers putting it in freezers to make the point.
A still from a video by Dave2D (YouTube).
Beyond faster MacBooks however, the shift marks an important landmark for ARM-based processors. Apple’s massive market share allows it to compel other parties in the computer ecosystem to act accordingly. When it designs an iPhone, software developers like Adobe, Microsoft Office, etc., are forced to take notice and adhere to technical specifications defined by Apple. Similarly, the shift to ARM now forces software companies to re-design their programs so that they can cater to the lucrative market of MacOS users. While Apple will assist in this transition, it also demonstrates the significant hold the company has over the computer services industry.
The unification of Apple’s devices will come with both benefits and costs. It will be possible for users to seamlessly move between their Apple devices and – accounting for inherent hardware limitations – use the same applications on their iPhone, Apple Watch and MacBooks. These devices will now be thinner, lighter, and more power efficient than ever, while increasing or retaining performance of traditional computers.
At the same time, this raises anti-trust concerns. A unified ecosystem creates a situation where someone using an iPhone would be more likely to buy a MacBook rather than a Windows laptop. And once within the ecosystem, Apple will have absolute control. Since the architecture for ARM based services is relatively nascent, open source software developed by enthusiasts is limited. This can allow Apple to lock users into a limited number of apps it approves of, pushing out competitors. Consider how its virtually impossible to install an app from outside of the AppStore on your iPhone; now compare that to installing any application from the internet on your Windows laptop. The costs might not be limited to rent-seeking by Apple alone; a single point of contact for accessing applications allows restrictive governments to block apps they consider inconvenient. For instance, at the request of Chinese government, Apple blocked several VPN apps on their iPhones that were used by activists to gain anonymous internet access and subvert censorship.
A lot of the above is in the realm of speculation, but it demonstrates the level of change that this rather nerdy announcement implies. More importantly, once Apple succeeds in the move to ARM processors, other hardware manufacturers with a foothold in the software industry too would also cash in on the groundwork. Microsoft will the first among these. It is already planning development on a new version of Windows 10X designed for ARM processors and incorporating many of the elements of a more locked up ecosystem like iOS, with limited space for installing applications from non-Microsoft approved sources. The implications are far-reaching, a centralization in the technology space must worry us all, but it might already be too late.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Sahil Makwane is pursuing an MS in Computer Engineering at NYU, Tandon, USA. He is a technology enthusiast with interest in healthcare and AI and has a passion for art. Sahil also serves as the Graphics Designer for Polemics and Pedantics and wrote this column owing to his special knowledge on the subject.