Apple's chip move might remake the PC market

If Apple does switch its computer lineup to A-series chips found in the iPhone, it gets all the same feature, performance and even supply-chain benefits.

Apple's chip move might remake the PC market

Switching to its own chips means that Apple controls its own destiny in yet another way, without hanging the Mac's capabilities on Intel's.

Photo: Dmitry Chernyshov/Unsplash

It's been rumored for years that Apple's planning to switch its Mac lineup to a homemade processor, rather than continuing to rely on Intel for its chips. Now, Bloomberg reported the switch could begin as soon as this year's WWDC, which kicks off June 22. The announcement would likely come long before any product rollout, of course, because developers will need as much time as possible to get their software working on the new hardware. But the change appears to be finally around the corner.

If Apple does make the switch, it could shake up the PC market in a big way. For many years, there have been virtually no ways to truly differentiate one laptop or desktop from another, outside of funky designs or slightly improved keyboards. They all use the same chips, which means they all get roughly the same performance, roughly the same battery life, and run the same software roughly the same way.

Recently, though, a few companies have started to experiment outside the boundaries. Dell and others have been building laptops with AMD processors, and even Microsoft has experimented with a more mobile-friendly ARM architecture. But while the last few months have been kind to the PC market, with NPD reporting six consecutive weeks of laptop sales growth as COVID-19 forced people to work from home, the broader signs still don't look great.

For Apple, which owns about a tenth of the PC market, there's plenty of reason to think that switching chips could switch its market share. For evidence, look at smartphones. Multitouch and the App Store get all the credit, but Apple's decision to make its own chips certainly belongs on the list of reasons the iPhone has so successful. After years of development and iteration, Apple's A-series chips are generally considered to be at least a generation ahead of Qualcomm's, both in performance and efficiency. It's also one of the reasons the company is able to sell a $399 iPhone SE that's as powerful as top-end Android devices.

More recently, on devices like the AirPods, Apple has used its own chips, and that marriage of hardware and software the company never stops talking about has helped it add uncopyable features like simple pairing and rock-solid connection. Without Apple's chips, it's impossible to build headphones that can match AirPods.

If Apple does, indeed, switch its computer lineup to the same A-series chips (which by some measures are already more powerful than the Intel processors inside current MacBooks), it gets all the same feature, performance and even supply-chain benefits. A switch to A-series chips would likely mean big battery life improvements for MacBooks, it could make it easier to create the kind of tablet/laptop hybrid people are clamoring for, and paired with Apple's newly acquired 5G division, it could make a 5G laptop a very real possibility. Most of all, it means that Apple controls its own destiny in yet another way, without hanging the Mac's capabilities on Intel's.

The switch will be brutal — Mac OS is not only based on Intel but on decades of history, and thus tech debt. As developers discovered with the Catalyst technology, it's not always seamless to port apps from one architecture to another. But if Apple gives itself, and developers, enough time, the invisible new chip inside millions of laptops could change the market.

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