Apple Silicon is one of the biggest risks the Mac-maker has ever taken

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A MacBook with Apple Silicon could be out in 2020.
A MacBook with an Apple A14 processor needs to be slim and powerful. If it’s not, Apple could get a black eye.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Switching Macs from Intel chips to ones Apple designs itself is enormously risky. True, macOS computers will be better than ever … if the transition goes right. But if the first Macs running on Apple Silicon — which are expected to be revealed Tuesday — turn into a debacle, it could seriously hurt Cupertino.

Here are some of the ways moving Mac to Apple processors might go off the rails.

What if truly powerful Apple Silicon computers don’t emerge?

Optimists are quick to point out that Apple has plenty of experience changing the processors that Macs run on — it’s gone through this twice before. Macs started with Motorola chips, then moved to PowerPC, then to Intel. But in the past, Apple was always moving to well-established processor families. That’s not happening this time.

Apple Silicon is based on Arm chip designs, and those have been around for decades. But they’re primarily used in phones. Laptops and desktops are still a new category for these processors. That’s what makes this transition the biggest risk Apple has ever taken.

True, early evidence seems to show Apple’s A-series chips are equivalent to those in midrange Intel computers. But that leaves out high-end devices, and many people won’t be satisfied with a midrange Mac. We’ve seen nothing yet about Apple Silicon being capable of going head-to-head with a top-tier Intel i9 processor.

What about Mac Pro?

And then there’s the Mac Pro. The base model comes with a 10-core Intel Xeon processor, and the workstation is configurable with up to 18 cores. Apple Silicon will need to do the same to keep up. Other companies make Arm-based chips with more than 100 cores, so it’s possible. But Apple hasn’t done it that we know of.

Also, the demonstrations we’ve seen of macOS running on A-series chips have been in carefully controlled circumstances. Only time will tell if Apple Silicon will provide performance comparable to Intel chips in real-world, everyday experiences.

If Apple cannot make truly powerful Macs running its own chips, it’ll lose whole groups of current and potential customers. Many businesses would switch to Windows.

To be clear, there’s nothing here that proves Apple Silicon can’t power a top-tier laptop or macOS workstation. But we don’t know for certain yet. That makes the transition risky. Fortunately, we’ll almost certainly know after Tuesday’s “One More Thing” event, in which Tim Cook and Co. are widely expected to take the wraps off the first MacBooks running Apple processors.

What if people don’t buy the new Macs?

When it comes time to put down $1,000 or more on a new computer, most people are conservative. And understandably so. Apple can’t afford to bobble the launch of Macs running its new chips or people will get scared away.

Leaks indicate Apple will launch a pair of MacBooks running Apple Silicon during Tuesday’s event. If these prove slow or laden with irritating bugs, then Apple’s transition away from Intel processors will be in trouble. Even if the bugs eventually get swatted, it could take many months — even years — for people to trust Macs running on Apple’s own chips. People will hold off purchasing a Mac for as long as they can, or get one of the last Intel models. Or, worst case, switch to Windows.

This is a “what if,” not a prediction. But it’s a risk. The release of macOS Big Sur — an update created for Apple Silicon — is months later than usual. Hopefully, Apple used the extra time to make it rock-steady.

What if Apple’s chipmaker gets overextended?

Apple designs its processors, but turns to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to actually produce them. Together, they make A Series chips powerful enough to beat the best Android devices.

TSMC uses production methods Intel can’t match. The A14 processor is made with a 5 nanometer process, giving it billions of tiny transistors with amazing performance per watt. And 3nm chips are coming in less than two years. Compare that to Intel, which still uses a 10nm process and hopes to move to 7nm in 2022.

But Apple doesn’t own TSMC, though the two companies have worked together for more than a decade. Plenty of other companies have noticed that the Taiwanese chipmaker is the best at what it does. That raises the potential that TSMC could someday become so popular it can’t keep up with demand, and end up not being able to provide Apple with all the processors it needs.

This possibility is worth considering because it’s already happening with Intel. One of the reasons Apple is switching is because Intel can’t meet Apple’s needs. It’s too busy making processors for other companies.

If the same thing happens with TSMC, Apple will have gone through the expense, effort and risk of moving to a new type of chip — and not received one of the main benefits. And customers would be forced to wait for their Apple Silicon Macs, just like having to wait now for Intel Macs.

A risk worth taking

Don’t take this as a prediction that Apple will face all of these problems. Or even any of them. But every one of them is possible.

That’s why dumping Intel in favor of Apple Silicon is such a big risk for the macOS platform — and for Apple in general. The company made $28.6 billion from Mac sales in the last 12 months. That’s 10% of its revenue. A big chunk of that could go away for years if Apple fumbles the upcoming transition.

Even worse, getting a reputation as a company that can’t make a decent laptop could hurt iPhone and iPad sales. If word gets around not to buy a MacBook, plenty of people will look suspiciously at Apple’s other products, too.

But if it all goes right?

On the other hand, if Apple pulls off a successful transition, the company should be able to offer powerful MacBooks with stellar battery life that no Intel-based notebook can match. While Apple hasn’t made any specific promises about performance or battery life, a stated goal of Apple Silicon is increasing MacBooks to desktop-level performance without putting additional strain on the battery.

And that might be a pessimistic outcome. Consider that iPads running Apple Silicon offer performance comparable to laptops while lasting 12-plus hours on a single charge. It helps that A-series processors run so cool that no fan is needed.

Just as important, the switch brings a huge rush of software to Mac. All iPhone and iPad software can run on macOS Big Sur … if the computer is powered by an Apple processor. That’s every iOS game, every social networking app, everything.

So Apple Silicon could bring an ultra-slim, totally quiet, powerful MacBook that goes all day, and can run a huge library of apps. Such a triumph would be worth taking such a big risk.