Apple Silicon M1 Disruption

The generally positive first reviews of M1-based Macs has generated animated discussions. Judging by users’ reactions, Apple’s new M1 processor truly is a BFD (Big Fantastic Disruption), but, as expected, certain critics have questioned the success.

When I published my previous Monday Note, PC Life After Apple Silicon, I thought it would be received with little hullabaloo, so imagine my surprise when it generated between 10 and 20 times more Tweetbot Mentions than any of my previous (607) pieces. Three questions enkindled the most heat.

First, Markitecture. A participant I won’t name argued that Apple Silicon is “just marketing BS”, that a “Raspberry Pi is an ARM computer just like an M1 Mac”. Knowledgeable participants gently explained that starting with the A6, Apple Silicon cores have been original Apple designs, they’re not just 64-bit cores licensed from ARM. An Hungarian researcher by the name of Dezsö Sima offers an exhaustive history of Apple processors that shows the transition to homegrown cores clearly started with the A6 device. Later, with the A11, previously licensed PowerVR GPUs were also replaced with in-house designs.

As I scrolled through Sima’s presentation, I was taken back to September 2013, when Apple introduced its first 64-bit SoC, the A7 processor that powered the iPhone 5s. Then, as now, critics made lazy “markitecture” accusations; I memorialized some of the reactions in a contemporary Monday Note tilted 64 bits. It’s Nothing. You Don’t Need It. And We’ll Have It In 6 Months, such as this taunt from InfoWorld:

“With current mobile devices and mobile apps, there really is no advantage [to 64 bits] other than marketing — the ability to say you’re the first to have it…”

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And here we have Patrick Moorhead (“the #1 analyst out of 8,000 in the ARInsights Power 100 rankings”) on Twitter:

“We’ll see just how good Apple’s marketing team is trying to leverage 64-bit. 64-bit add[s] more memory and maybe registers. Period.”

(If I may say so, that Note is worth re-reading if only for the amusement of noticing the similarity to the recent pooh-poohing of the newborn M1.)

Fast forward seven years and Moorhead is back with a Forbes piece in which he lists a number of problems he encountered testing a M1-powered MacBook Pro, and concludes thus:

“In the Windows ecosystem, you can get lighter and more diverse designs, higher resolution displays, touch-displays, LTE and 5G, software and peripheral compatibility, and you’ll pay less.”

In his haste to defend the x86 ecosystem where he makes his living (see the impressive list of clients such as Intel, AMD and NVIDIA at the end of his piece), Moorhead misses an important detail. As pointed out in John Gruber’s hard takedown of Moorhead’s piece, most of the problems he encountered were software problems, not M1 hardware issues. As many said in the animated Tweeter discussions: ”Stay away from early software releases!”. Third-party software developers often lack the manpower to update their product in time for the initial OS release.

Indeed, the new Big Sur macOS has caused some trouble in our family computing arrangements. After using the excellent Migration Assistant to move the contents of her MacBook to a new M1 Macbook Air, my spouse could no longer print on her trusty wireless Brother laser printer. It turns out it’s a macOS Big Sur problem, not a M1 hardware challenge. No word on Brother’s support site about if or when this will be fixed.

More problems. My old 2013 iMac can’t run Big Sur, so I moved its contents to a sprightlier 2017 device. Everything went well…almost. The iCloud Drive folder on the new device bears little resemblance to the original. The data appears to be intact, but there’s no apparent sense (name or date) in the new arrangement. Cryptical error messages such as “IDECacheDeleteAppExtension quit unexpectedly” appear on the screen for no apparent reason, and my trusty Antidote spell and grammar checker is said to not work — but actually does. I’m sure to discover more new warts.

Second heated issue: Performance. This was a bit of a surprise. I thought the initial reviews and benchmarks from trusted sources such as The Verge had shown that M1 Macs provide more speed and more battery life at the same time. “Impossible!” said a few participants, “This is yet another instance of the Third Lie!” (Action, Omission, and Benchmarks). This was a welcome discussion as it brought learned explanations of M1 performance, such as Erik Engheim’s Why Is Apple’s M1 Chip So Fast?, and Apple Silicon M1: A developer’s Perspective by Peter Steinberger.

Apple’s organization and culture provide an unusual advantage when it comes to performance: The garage might be large but everyone works under the same roof. Hardware is designed with software in mind and software is molded to get the best performance from the multiple core and dedicated GPUs, something that cannot be said for Intel, AMD, and Microsoft. As Engheim puts it:

“In the new SoC world, you don’t assemble physical components from different vendors. Instead, you assemble IP (intellectual property) from different vendors…Now you got a big problem, because neither Intel, AMD, or Nvidia are going to license their intellectual property to Dell or HP for them to make an SoC for their machines.”

This leads us to third subject of contention: The impact on the world of Windows-powered devices. It can be approached by asking what the future is for Microsoft’s ARM-based Surface Pro X, offered in a 16GB/256GB configuration for $1,499 on the company’s site. How will it stand up to a comparably configured M1 MacBook Air at $1,199?

The Surface Pro X hasn’t sold well, in part because of 32-bit and 64-bit compatibility issues. Microsoft has long recognized the interest of ARM processors, especially for laptops, but before the advent of the M1, it had failed to provide a convincing competitor to x86 devices. Will Microsoft now offer an official Windows 10 on ARM that can run on M1 Macs? (As Peter Steinberger notes, an existence proof is available.) This could create trouble in the x86 PC world.

Or will Microsoft, less committed to Windows than it is to its applications running everywhere, be content to see Office and more run (and generate revenue) on M1 Macs…and how will HP, Asus, Dell and others react? This is just the beginning of a new competitive layout.

For the new M1 Macs, we must ask the Job To Be Done question. For the near term the answer is simple: The Mac is a culture-define product, just cater to what is loosely called the Mac community. Other issues can wait — and are likely to take care of themselves without much exertion from Apple.

— JLG@mondaynote.com

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