• Sat. Jun 19th, 2021

Apple Silicon Broadens Arm Assault on Intel and AMD’s x86

Apple M1

In a presentation long on High marketing performance claims but short on actual substantive data, Apple unveiled its Arm-powered M1 processors for its Mac lineup today, which sport four high-performance cores, four efficiency cores, and eight GPU cores. The move to Arm marks Apple’s biggest shift since it moved from PowerPC to Intel’s x86 processors fifteen long years ago and threatens to unseat x86’s decades-long dominance – dealing both Intel and AMD a stunning blow in the process. 

Even more concerning, Arm-based designs are already on denser and more efficient process nodes than either Intel or AMD, and surprisingly, Apple finds itself with an unlikely and powerful ally in its quest to take Arm mainstream: Nvidia.

Apple believes the Arm instruction set and architecture is the path forward for client computing, but its M1 performance comparisons were blurry enough to make even the worst of shady benchmark offenders blush. For now, we don’t know how the chips will stack up in real-world testing. However, while it’s hard to believe any meaningful Arm vs x86 comparisons based on what little real information the company shared (we still don’t even know the M1’s clock speeds), Apple’s all-in gamble on Arm has broader implications for the industry. In fact, x86 now faces the most potent threat it’s seen in recent history

Arm has long had greater aspirations than ‘just’ powering billions of mobile devices, but the ubiquity and overwhelmingly large install base of x86-powered systems have been an impossible hurdle to jump. In many respects, Arm has been plagued by the classic chicken-and-egg scenario in the PC market: Without widespread Arm PCs in the ecosystem, there simply hasn’t been enough of a financial incentive for software developers to add the targeted enhancements that make code highly-performant on both Arm and x86 devices, let alone write PC applications entirely for Arm systems.

While x86 code can run on Arm architectures via emulation, a dearth of tuned software shackles performance and efficiency, ultimately restricting uptake – look no further than other x86 emulation attempts, like always-connected PCs, for evidence. 

Apple’s true strength doesn’t really lay in its scale in the PC market, though. Despite much of the bombastic commentary surrounding Apple’s switch from Intel to Arm, Apple only comprises roughly ~9% of the PC market. That means Intel doesn’t stand to lose a devastating amount of revenue in the short term, though that could certainly happen over time if Apple’s future Arm processors offer drastically higher performance at acceptable price points. That will likely take years, though, as Apple builds out its product stack. As a perfect example, Apple still offers Intel-powered versions of its PCs as the upsell to its fresh roster of Arm-powered Macs. 

In reality, the real key is Apple’s Mac developer ecosystem. Mac developers comprise roughly 30% of the overall pool of software developers, while 45% toil away on Windows and 25% dedicate their time to writing Linux software. With Apple going all-in on Arm, it’s only a matter of time before its massive pool of software developers being to utilize the Arm instruction set more fully. That will have the knock-on effect of building a broader Arm software ecosystem that opens the door for other chipmakers to move to the Arm architecture for PCs, too. 

Oddly enough, Apple has an unexpected ally in its quest to bring Arm to the forefront: Nvidia. Through its pending $40 billion acquisition of Arm, Nvidia stands to benefit from Apple’s efforts – Apple is an Arm licensee, after all. 

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