PC Life After Apple Silicon

Apple Silicon, in its first incarnation as the M1 System-on-a Chip, combined with a new macOS version is about to expand Apple’s share of the PC market — at Intel’s expense.

The results are in. Apple Silicon Macs met the lofty promises made at Apple’s last June and repledged at the of three new Macs powered by the new chip. According to the reviews that have emerged since the embargo was lifted on November 17th, the new Macs do provide the promised combination of better performance and longer battery life. As Dieter Bohn noted in [as always, edits and emphasis mine]:

“…just for a moment, enjoy: a tech company made a big promise that it could do a hard thing and then did that thing.”

You might also want to look at John Gruber’s extensive (4814 words!) and thoughtful piece at Daring Fireball. Titled the article concludes thus:

“Folks used to say that no one gets fired for buying IBM. Similarly, no one ever won by betting against Intel and the x86 architecture. Intel always won.

Until now, that is, when it’s clear they’ve lost. Apple’s two previous Mac architecture transitions were made from positions of desperation — they were jumping the Mac from sinking ships. This transition from Intel to Apple Silicon has clearly been made from a position of overwhelming strength.”

Indeed, the following graph from an shows us that in the past few years, Apple chips have made more rapid progress than Intel’s and have now taken the lead. [the line and arrows are mine]:

(The graph would be even more persuasive with power requirements figured in. All reviewers have noted that the M1 chips use significantly less power, thus extending battery life.)

Cheers to Apple for making good on its promise and asserting itself in the PC world, but does it matter to Intel? Conventional wisdom tells that while the new Apple Silicon Macs will intrude on the edge of the PC market, the Santa Clara company’s x86 architecture, which commands more than 90% of desktops and laptops, and even more of the high-margin server market, will continue to dominate.

So does the M1 processor matter beyond the manicured confines of Apple’s Walled Garden? The answer might come from Microsoft.

The Redmond company already has Windows 10 running on . Despite an , the combination hasn’t taken the world by storm, so why not go “whole Mac” and offer Windows 10 on M1? Microsoft’s key applications running on Apple hardware would deliver an experience that’s much more attractive than on an x86 laptop. As SR VP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi noted, it’s Microsoft’s decision:

“…for Windows running natively on the machine, “that’s really up to Microsoft,” he said. “We have the core technologies for them to do that, to run their ARM version of Windows, which in turn of course supports x86 user mode applications. But that’s a decision Microsoft has to make, to bring to license that technology for users to run on these Macs. But the Macs are certainly very capable of it.”

I won’t presume to think for Microsoft, but it seems like an attractive proposition for a company that’s increasingly interested in its applications running everywhere on any hardware, whether locally or in the cloud. According to a , Microsoft Office support for M1 chips is “in the works” — or already there through emulation:

“Microsoft also wants to deliver the best experience across platforms, so it’s jumping on board the M1 train.”

With Microsoft apps running natively on M1 Macs, x86 PC makers such as HP and Dell will be competing with machines that are faster and have a better battery life. Their only rebuttal could be Windows 10 running on ARM silicon.

The ARM processor inside might not be as fast as the M1, but there’s a strong incentive for or to partner with Microsoft and come up with an attractive ARM-based chip and offer it to today’s PC OEMs. With Windows 10 on ARM this would create a new generation of lighter, longer-running laptops that, in theory, would be able to compete with Apple Silicon Macs.

In this scenario, Microsoft becomes the entity that controls Intel’s future in the PC market. While the M1 Macs might not make a dent in Intel’s PC business, Windows 10 running on competitive, inexpensive ARM processors would be an enormous blow…if Microsoft can pull it off.

Here, if is the operative word.

Over the years, Microsoft’s adoption of ARM has been tentative., a version of Windows 8 running on 32-bit ARM hardware introduced in 2011, didn’t “take”. In 2016, Microsoft announced a partnership with Qualcomm to run 32-bit Windows software on ARM architecture hardware. In 2019, Microsoft shipped the Surface Pro X, followed by a 2020 version that promised to finally run native 64-bit Windows software.

Contrast these hesitant, tepidly received steps with Apple’s firm move that combined hardware, macOS, and its own applications.

Even if Microsoft were to forge partnerships that resulted in ARM-based PC processors, the “decentralized” command and control could result in a lot of confusion. As difficult as it is to move vertically integrated hardware and software to new silicon, the task is compounded when you’re trying to herd PC OEMs, processor makers, and software (Windows and applications).

One can see an uneasy, confused coexistence of x86 and various ARM-based products. I have no idea how Microsoft could bring order to a new ARM platform, certainly not with the success that let them reign for decades with x86 devices.

This leaves us with two conclusions. First, moving to ARM-based PCs is a challenging proposition: Confusion if you do, less competitive PCs if you don’t.

Second, even if Macs don’t generate as much revenue as iPhones do, they are poised to easily expand Apple’s share of the laptop and desktop market — taken from Intel’s hide.