Today proved just how fickle, and even devastating, the Apple rumor mill can be. This is doubly true when the rumors come from someone with a reliable track record. Such was the case early this afternoon, when Mark Gurman (and Ian King) of Bloomberg reported that Apple will be moving away from Intel’s processors as soon as 2020. It touched off a firestorm of coverage and speculation, and also caused Intel’s stock to fall 6.4% by 3:30 PM Eastern today. Ouch.
However, when we look at this story as the dust starts to settle, it may not be quite as dramatic as some first thought.
This really shouldn’t surprise anyone in tech who is paying attention
We may not know exactly how things will shake out or what form platform evolutions at Apple will take, but they have been coming for a while now. This journey may have officially started when Apple acquired PA Semi back in 2008, but you can draw a pretty straight line back to the release of the A4 Processor in 2010 in the original iPad and the iPhone 4.
It has been a slow and steady build since, as the A Series has gotten progressively more flexible and powerful. Now we have the A11, which is capable of impressive multitasking and can handle processor-intensive apps with relative ease. It is also quite power efficient, considering all its capability. If Apple keeps on developing at its current pace, then there is no reason to believe that they can’t produce a chip capable of powering a MacBook in two years.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Apple has already started putting their silicon in their recent laptops. They added the T1 chip running a variant of watchOS to power the Touch Bar in the current gen MacBook Pro. I would expect to see the W2 wireless chip very soon, as well. In other words, replacing the main processor is just the logical next step.
Apple has an unique and interesting opportunity
Apple isn’t the only company in mobile making their own customized silicon anymore, as both Samsung and Google are doing the same. However, it has been clear by the numbers and specs that Apple still has a significant edge in the mobile chip space. The A11 literally lapped the field when it was released, and the A11X should improve on that when we (hopefully) see it in June. The fact that Apple is the only company that has such tight control of both their OS and hardware certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
While Apple has legitimate competition in the mobile chip space, they have a wide-open opportunity in conventional computing. No one else in the desktop and laptop space has the opportunity that Apple does to control the entire technology stack, top to bottom. While their partnership with Intel was a marriage of convenience that has served them well for 13 years, the opportunity has to be too good to pass up. When you look at the situation from this perspective, why wouldn’t Apple make this move?
Convergence is in the air
It was also Mark Gurman who reported late last year that Apple has a secret program called Marzipan that is focused on bringing iOS and macOS closer together. Supposedly we could start to see elements of this program as early as this year. Eventually, it should allow developers to create one app for not only all iOS variants and devices, but also macOS.
Marzipan should go along way toward interlocking the macOS and iOS platforms further. And who knows, this could be the first step toward Apple fully unifying the two further down the road. Even before that point, macOS users should greatly benefit by getting direct access to more new apps that were originally created for iOS devices.
Marzipan isn’t the only potential point of convergence we see right now, either. There have been a couple of recent patent awards and applications that detail potential hybrid hardware. Both deal with virtual keyboards, with the awarded patent specifically focused on a clamshell device with an OLED keyboard section. All of this news points to various ways that we may see iOS and macOS come together. One of the easiest ways for Apple to speed that process along is to take more control of their own destiny. I think we all know how that happens.
A slow play, rather than a clean break
While Apple starting to make its own chips for macOS hardware seems fairly obvious, I don’t expect them to migrate all of their hardware all at once. In fact, I would expect that this would be a slow and deliberate process. I think we will see Apple start with either a MacBook or iOS hybrid notebook device, before then moving on to the MacBook Pro. I wouldn’t expect Apple to migrate their iMac and coming Mac Pro desktop machines until all of the potential bugs and migration issues are completely worked out.
While Apple moving away isn’t good news for Intel, I think it is highly unlikely that the bottom drops out suddenly. This isn’t a PowerPC situation, where Apple needs to move quickly away from a stagnant and dying architecture. Intel may be struggling to keep up with the shift to a more mobile world, but they still own the desktop space, without question. Apple can take their time, which will allow them to make sure their chips are up to the task, while also easing the blow to Intel. The companies will likely still be partners in various ways, so it makes since for Apple to not to burn this bridge unnecessarily.
The only thing really notable about Mark Gurman’s report today is that we have someone with a solid reputation going on the record with a timeframe. However, the writing has been on the wall. Apple making a move to their own chips across the board has been coming, and I’m sure Intel already knew that, as well.
Despite the fact that such a move will inevitably hurt Intel to some degree, it definitely won’t be crippling to their business, as Apple only accounts for a few percent of their current chip sales. It will frankly do more damage to their reputation than their bottom line, as losing a customer as high profile as Apple goes beyond pure dollars and cents, However, this may not be the end of Apple’s relationship with Intel. Considering that they still have a running feud with Qualcomm over cellular modems, it is very likely that Apple will still be buying new 5G hardware from Intel while they slowly work on their own modems for future use. So, while a complete Apple/Intel split may be in the cards at some point, I wouldn’t expect it to be two years from now unless some drastic changes occur to one or both companies.