The Next Chapter for the Mac

As I covered last week, the Mac has room to grow as a business and take more share in the premium PC category where computers with an ASP of $800 or more sell approx 90m units a year. In contrast, Apple sells ~20-25m Macs a year. The Mac is on a growth trajectory this year, setting record sales last quarter at just over 6m units according to IDC, which is the first time the Mac has ever sold 6m or more in a single quarter. The Mac has been partially helped by COVID, and many individuals and families working and learning from home, and a greater need for each person to have a notebook arose.

As I’m sure, many of you followed Apple’s One More Thing event yesterday and saw Apple’s aggressive rollout for Apple Silicon in Macs and a new chip called the M1. Interestingly when I first saw the invite go out for the event and it was called One More Thing, I was intrigued. This phrase, made famous by Steve Jobs, typically was reserved for launching or highlighting something Apple thought was a big deal. When Steve Jobs would stay on stage, “and there one more thing,” you knew what was about to come was not something small or trivial but something significant. It is for this reason, and I think Apple’s ambitions for the Mac may be greater than many realize, and this is a much bigger deal. I think this visual from Apple on the Mac page says it all about their belief in how big this transition for the Mac is in actuality.

As we think about the transitions, the Mac has gone through from Motorola 68k to PowerPC to Intel, and now to Apple Silicon, each platform provided growth along the way. Arguably, shifting to Intel was highly strategic and a key reason Apple was able to grow the Mac business and be a viable consumer and corporate option. But even with Intel X86 designs, Macs still never crossed 10% of PC sales. The Mac is coming off its best year, which makes for an interesting time to begin to transition the platform over the next few years.

I will talk about performance and how that fits into Apple’s narrative in a bit, but I first want to acknowledge how most average consumers do not care so much about performance and specs or whose processor brand is in their notebook. Most consumers care about the features and functions of a product, and what it will allow them to do they can’t do with other products. For the Apple Silicon Powered Macs, I think the consumer value proposition will boil down to two things. The large app ecosystem, and better battery life.

Apple is bringing the whole of the iOS app ecosystem to Macs powered by the M1. This means day one, Macs running the M1 will have the largest collection of apps of any notebook/desktop platform on the market. Battery life is another key story, all though while M1 powered Macs will have the best battery life of any Mac, there are Qualcomm based PCs and some new Intel Evo powered Intel devices also touting 16-18 hours of battery life. Despite that, it is time the entire PC industry moved to better than all-day battery life and it seems we are one step closer to that reality.

Questions remain about how the new M1 Macs will work with the vast iOS ecosystem which had generally been designed with touch screens in mind, and how legacy software works using Rosetta 2, but I think Apple has to be confident in their own real-world tests to have brought out three new products running the M1.

The Purpose of Performance
During the presentation, Apple made some claims about the total computing performance of the M1 as well as the power efficiency of the architecture. Everyone understands why being power efficient matters, it means you can do more and get better battery life. The performance aspect is often overlooked in a world where notebook performance has been largely stagnant. The writers at Anandtech did a fascinating preview of the launch of Apple Silicon benchmarking Apple’s A14 chip to the current processors from Intel and AMD.

They showed a chart comparing the A14 to the latest Intel core I-7 chips and the latest release from AMD on the Ryzen 3 platform. Below that chart, which I encourage you to look at, they make the following conclusion.

The performance numbers of the A14 on this chart is relatively mind-blogging. If I were to release this data with the label of the A14 hidden, one would guess that the data-points came from some other x86 SKU from either AMD or Intel. The fact that the A14 currently competes with the very best top-performance designs that the x86 vendors have on the market today is just an astonishing feat.

The fact that Apple is able to achieve this in a total device power consumption of 5W including the SoC, DRAM, and regulators, versus +21W (1185G7) and 49W (5950X) package power figures, without DRAM or regulation, is absolutely mind-blowing.

With the A14 benchmarking as good, and in many cases better than the current offerings from Intel and AMD, the article seems to suggest that Apple can certainly achieve what they said as the fastest CPU in the world.

The article goes onto what is an incredible observation of Apple’s designs and architecture with their own custom silicon. This graph highlights the point the author then emphasizes.

During the release of the A7, people were pretty dismissive of the fact that Apple had called their microarchitecture a desktop-class design. People were also very dismissive of us calling the A11 and A12 reaching near desktop-level performance figures a few years back, and today marks an important moment in time for the industry as Apple’s A14 now clearly is able to showcase performance that’s beyond the best that Intel can offer. It’s been a performance trajectory that’s been steadily executing and progressing for years:

Whilst in the past 5 years Intel has managed to increase their best single-thread performance by about 28%, Apple has managed to improve their designs by 198%, or 2.98x (let’s call it 3x) the performance of the Apple A9 of late 2015.

Apple’s performance trajectory and unquestioned execution over these years are what has made Apple Silicon a reality today. Anybody looking at the absurdness of that graph will realize that there simply was no other choice but for Apple to ditch Intel and x86 in favor of their own in-house microarchitecture – staying par for the course would have meant stagnation and worse consumer products.

In this case, the performance benchmarks speak for themselves as to why this transition makes sense within Apple’s grand ambitions to truly separate the Mac from the rest of the PC industry. There is an important saying that if you give developers performance they will always use it. Apple has the most robust and thriving third-party development community in the world and their hope is that as they bring industry-leading performance to the Mac, those developers will create software that can only run on the M1 platform. And in the vein of one of Tim Cook’s favorite sayings, the Mac truly becomes something only Apple could create.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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