What pulled Apple away from Intel? In a new interview, Apple executives Tim Millet and Bob Borchers reveal why the company shifted to making its own Mac chips.
Plus, they shed light on what they’re doing to make the Mac a gaming platform once again, how the Apple silicon architecture can make it happen, and when the best time is to buy a new Mac.
What pulled Apple away from Intel?
It’s hardly a secret that Apple is always experimenting with different platforms for its products. Upon revealing the transition to Intel processors in 2005, Steve Jobs revealed that Apple had been building versions of Mac OS X for Intel since the very beginning.
I have no doubt that when Apple first started its own silicon ambitions with the A4 chip in 2010 that the company began dipping its toe in the water with prototype Macs running on an in-house platform. As a just-in-case scenario, Apple probably still prototypes Macs with Intel processors inside for comparison.
It all started with the iPad Pro
According to Millet, Apple’s vice president of platform architecture and hardware technologies, the company began exploring the Mac’s transition to Apple chips in earnest around the time of the iPad Pro’s debut.
“Once we started getting to the iPad Pro space, we realized that, ‘You know what, there is something there,’” he told TechCrunch.
Indeed, the enormous capability of the iPad Pro led many on the outside to speculate. If Apple can build a largely battery-powered device in such a thin enclosure without any active cooling that exceeds the power of the MacBook Pro … imagine what the same chips could do with more cores, more space and more cooling in a Mac.
“We wanted to have the ability to build a scale of solutions that deliver the absolute maximum performance for machines that had no fan; for machines that had active cooling systems like our pro class machines,” Millet said. Apple knew from the beginning that it wanted one solution that could scale across its entire product line. Optimizing performance per watt helped Apple build just that.
When collaboration aids your enemy
Meanwhile, Apple’s highly collaborative partnership with Intel proved to be a double-edged sword. Yes, the two companies pushed each other to innovate. However, “Our competitors’ products benefited from that interaction as well sometimes,” Millet said.
The MacBook Air was a product Apple never could have built with the older-yet PowerPC architecture. But even Intel had to be pushed into the form factor, as it required a custom-designed, shrunken-down version of the Core 2 Duo chip. A few years later, Windows PCs copying the MacBook Air’s ultrabook design began to hit the market … running the very same Intel processors.
Without Intel in the picture, Apple engineers work with fellow Apple engineers to build the entire product at once. Borchers, Apple’s vice president of worldwide product marketing, says this goes deeper than tightening a feedback loop — there’s no feedback loop to speak of when it’s a collaborative process from conception to execution.
“You [just] sit down at a table and push each other. ‘Okay, well, what if we got rid of the fan?’” Borchers said. “And it doesn’t require this latency in the system, which I think has efficiency gains, but it also unleashes your creativity in new ways.”
A return to gaming on the Mac
Gaming on Windows PCs, meanwhile, has exploded. If Apple wants a piece of that pie back, it faces a classic chicken and egg problem. The company has an uphill battle to court both AAA game developers and serious gamer customers. Millet acknowledged as much in the interview.
“I don’t think we’re going to fool anybody by saying that overnight we’re going to make Mac a great gaming platform,” Millet said. “We’re going to take a long view on this.”
Apple is collaborating closely with game studios to make sure its Metal API offers everything they would ask of it.
“We worked hand in hand to make sure that they were going to have all the tools that they needed to accelerate the important APIs that we’re going to deliver to [companies like] Capcom, for example,” Millet said. “So that when Capcom approached us, it wasn’t going to be this awkward port for them. It was going to be a very natural ‘Ah, you do support these modern APIs that gamers are needing.’”
Apple silicon is very different from Intel’s x86
It’s not so simple when Apple silicon is such a different breed of computer when compared to the Intel x86 architecture that has powered the PC since 1981. Because PCs have separate bins of memory for the CPU and GPU, Millet speculates, “Game developers have never seen 96 gigabytes of graphics memory available to them now, on the M2 Max. I think they’re trying to get their heads around it […] They’re used to working in much smaller footprints of video memory.”
Of course, that leads to a limitation of Apple silicon that, naturally, neither Millet nor Borchers commented on: Windows PCs are highly expandable in ways that new Macs are not. GPUs bigger than entire game consoles can add enormous power that simply isn’t possible on a single chip. And you can add any PCI graphics card to any compatible motherboard, allowing you to upgrade your PC at any time.
Apple has yet to show its hand for the highest-end market. The Mac Pro, the most PC-like product of all the Macs, has not made the jump to Apple silicon. But if rumors are to be believed, it also might not be expandable.
There’s never a bad time to buy a Mac anymore
Finally, Millet answers an age-old question: When’s the best time to buy a new Mac these days?
“I really, with full sincerity, believe now is always a good time,” he said. “Nobody should be shy about it.”
As I said on The CultCast (although not as elegantly), the story of the new MacBook Pro is simple: Last month, you could buy an excellent laptop; today, you can buy a 20% more excellent laptop.
Of course, it’s not about getting people to upgrade from an M1 Mac to an M2. It’s still about pulling customers with aging Intel Macs over to Apple silicon.
“We’re just trying to make it more and more of an easy decision to move … to an even more amazing system,” said Borchers. That’s where Apple execs can throw out numbers like 10× instead of 10%.
On one last note, Borchers sang directly to my ears in praising the Mac mini.
“We feel like the Mac mini form factor is such a great way to unleash creativity and, frankly, goodness in the world that we wanted to be able to put it in as many people’s hands as possible,” Borchers said.
This is a change of pace, to say the least, from Apple’s positioning of this machine during the Intel era — and I couldn’t agree more.