Column Apple Silicon has been the autumn’s hottest news in cool chips. Giving Intel two years’ notice, the first laptop and desktop with the new Arm-based M1 chip have shipped and the benchmarks run. If you believe some of the more febrile headlines, Apple has upended the industry, sparked a revolution and changed the face of computing forever.
Nah. What Apple has done is very impressive, but for every piece of spot-on engineering, there’s an aspect of the company’s business model that limits its ultimate importance. It may seem like a bold step to change the basic architecture of all macOS devices, but it also reveals a timidity that may in the end render it curiously impotent.
Let’s celebrate what Apple got right. The first two devices with the M1 at their heart are breathtakingly fast, superbly power-frugal, and surprisingly good value. The Mac Mini has no peer at its price point, beating previous Intel-powered desktop Macs in single-core performance.
The system software is also impressive. You won’t notice that your x86 applications are going through a translation layer, but then, you don’t anyway, as no processor has run x86 code natively for decades, there’s always a much more efficient inner core chewing through microinstructions after the x86 code has been decoded and stripped down. What you can do in software you can do in hardware and vice-versa, that’s a basic rule of computation, and which you choose is just a matter of efficiency and performance.
How Apple's M1 uses high-bandwidth memory to run like the clappersREAD MORE
Don't stray over the garden wall
This is where Apple’s true focus lies. The M1 isn’t a processor, it’s a system-on-chip (SoC) of exceptional efficiency. Apple has combined sixteen compute cores of various sorts with a ton of cache and a sea of unified RAM, together with most of the ancillary circuitry that makes up a modern computer, all in the chip package.
It is a modern Apple computer on a chip, very fast, very power efficient, and very profitable – but it can’t do anything else. Future iterations of the M-series chips will be beefier and even more capable, but they, too, will be Apple computers. MacOS and apps built in Apple’s development ecosystem will be finely tuned to make the most efficient use of the memory architecture, something that can make a huge difference in performance between systems that look on paper to be pretty comparable.
Because Apple controls its entire hardware and software stack, it can make the whole thing work extremely well, and make the company a lot of money at it. But that’s it. Apple won’t sell the chip to anyone else, partially because Apple would rather sell Tim Cook’s granny than sell anything other than finished computers, but mostly because a general purpose part would have compromises that takes the shine off.
You can’t add RAM to your Mac Mini M1, because putting an external memory bus on the SoC would drag it back to the same limitations of physics that any other CPU faces. Much better to have all those tightly integrated very wide on-chip buses, and slam the door on the big nasty slow world outside.
And, shocking to relate, there’s a much, much bigger world of computing than just the bits with a piece of fruit on the front. How many CPU cycles of your daily IT workload happen on your local CPUs, and how many in the distant caverns of Amazon, Microsoft and Google? How many of those will be affected by Apple’s industry-shaking switch?
The real problems – the interesting problems – in computing are never solved by an SoC. The real problems – the interesting problems – are moving data, not doing sums in a CPU. The very first electronic programmable computer, the Bletchley Park Colossus, had 1930s-era valves at its heart, but even they were limited not by their intrinsic speed but by how quickly data could be streamed in from paper tape. The most modern clusters of GPU-powered supercomputing live and die by the interconnection fabric and the logistics of getting huge data sets out of store, into compute, and out again.
Here is where revolutions happen. Intel has no magic right to life here either, of course, but it’s a market it knows well that might as well be on Pluto for all Apple cares. The company wants to make shiny phones, shiny laptops and shiny desktops, and it wants to make as much money from shiny phones, shiny laptops and shiny desktops as it can without breaching the walls of its own magic kingdom.
How big that kingdom can be is up for discussion, but by and large most people who want Apple phones, laptops and desktops have them. For my own reasons, I choose to eschew macOS and iOS as my primary platforms, so it doesn’t really matter how superfast they run; most of my friends are Apple fans and will doubtless migrate to the new world in time, as they would no matter what.
The M1 chip is Apple daring to make ever more money by being more Apple-y than ever. It shows with absolute clarity that Apple has no ambitions beyond that, no plans to change its world, no new ideas or new ambitions. Extreme efficiency is it. Which is fine, it’s clearly an excellent way to be very rich, and if that’s all you want from life then congratulations.
It’s not much of a future, though. Extreme efficiency in an ecosystem invariably leads to extinction when that ecosystem changes. Enjoy the beautiful plumage of those benchmarks, but watch the sky for asteroids coming out of the clouds. ®
PS: If you really want to know more about the insides of the M1 and its use of caches, memory, and out-of-order execution, see this analysis.