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If the tech industry was an episode of The Great British Baking Show, this week would be chip week.
For its showstopper challenge, the judges would like Apple to make a new computer. It can be any size and shape you like, laptop or desktop, and you can use any materials you’d like. But it cannot have a central processor chip from Intel or AMD or anyone else. The chip must be an original design. Now, this is a showstopper challenge, so the judges are expecting a gorgeous creation with stunning looks, long battery life, and good performance. You have 24 hours (until it is revealed).
Kidding aside, the tech event of the week and perhaps the year is Apple’s Tuesday unveiling of its first Macintosh computers that use chips of its own design. The original Mac, back in 1984, ran on a Motorola processor. About a decade later, Apple switched to the PowerPC line, a joint venture with Moto and IBM. And about a decade after that, in 2006, came Macs with Intel processors, which have had a good long run.
But as with the prior transitions, one of the main reasons for Apple’s upcoming switch away from Intel is stagnation at the source.
Motorola’s 68000 processors in early Macs fell behind the chip trend of the 1990s: Known as reduced instruction set computing, or RISC, the big idea was to eliminate programming complexity, freeing the processor to work more quickly.
Then the problem with the PowerPC was that IBM had little interest in optimizing chips for laptops to make them run cool enough without big fans (Tim Cook once called it “the mother of all thermal challenges”).
Intel’s chips, sadly, have also fallen behind in multiple ways. Intel was years behind in shrinking a transistor from a scale of 14 nanometers to 10 nanometers, or about 1/10,000 the width of a human hair. Even now, not all Intel’s parts have moved to 10 nanometers, and the company says its switch to 7 nanometers is also running late. The delays have allowed rivals Samsung and Taiwan Semiconductor to leap ahead in chip manufacturing.
And Intel has long been behind in making low-power chips that run cooler for use in portable devices. That’s why Apple didn’t use Intel chips for the iPhone and the iPad (and nearly every other smartphone and tablet maker followed suit). That’s also a relevant concern for laptops.
When Apple switched to the PowerPC, Mac users got a tremendous increase in performance that enabled software to leap forward. When Apple switched to Intel, Mac users got a decent performance boost. But since the exact same chips were also used in Windows computers, a sneaky side benefit was Macs could suddenly run Windows programs more easily. That ignited one of the greatest increases in Mac sales (and market share) ever.
This time around, with Apple switching to chips of its own design using basic frameworks from ARM and manufactured by Taiwan Semiconductor, it’s unclear exactly what will be the most important benefit. It could be amazing performance. It could be extreme low-power usage. It could be something else that isn’t obvious.
But when Apple brings its showstopper up to the judging table tomorrow, I’m betting they will be awarded “star baker.”