On Apple’s ‘Insurmountable’ Platform Advantage

Provocative piece by Steve Cheney:

The truth is the best people in chip design no longer want to work at Intel or Qualcomm. They want to work at Apple. I have plenty of friends in the Valley who affirm this. Sure Apple products are cooler. But Apple has also surpassed Intel in performance. This is insane. A device company — which makes CPUs for internal use — surpassing Intel, the world’s largest chip maker which practically invented the CPU and has thousands of customers.

This pedigree that Apple developed now has a secondary powerful force: portable devices serve as the reference platform whereby all chip design starts. Components from the smartphone market now power almost all other markets, giving Apple’s in-house team a comparative advantage as they enter new product categories, like wearables and electric cars.

In the old days, when Macs ran on PowerPC chips (or even older days, when they ran on Motorola 680 × 0 chips), Macs were generally slower than their PC counterparts. Every once in a while Apple could jump ahead, but only briefly. In the long run, Apple couldn’t compete with Intel-based PCs on specs. Then, Apple switched to Intel chips, and the competition was over — raw computational power was no longer a factor, because all personal computers were using Intel CPUs.

I don’t think it has gotten through the heads of many people that Apple has now turned the old dynamic on its head. Apple’s ARM chips are years ahead of the commodity chips used by its competition, and are set to surpass even Intel’s x86 chips in terms of performance-per-watt. (Worth keeping in mind: performance-per-watt was Steve Jobs’s primary justification for the switch from PowerPC to Intel when the transition was announced at WWDC 2005.)

Interesting tidbit toward the end of Cheney’s piece:

It’s also known in inner circles that Apple has embarked on design of radio interface (RF) chips that traditionally were off limits to all but the most advanced chip makers like Qualcomm. These chips rival CPUs in complexity. Apple is now designing these to spec and will be putting its own radios into future mobile devices. This has physical layer impacts on bandwidth, connectivity, latency and user experience — all critical for autonomous vehicles.

Bluetooth sucks. In my opinion it’s the single-biggest problem with Apple Watch. Would be interesting if Apple created its own better-than-Bluetooth wireless protocol. Proprietary, of course.

Update: We should clarify one point from Cheney’s headline — Apple’s lead is formidable, not insurmountable. Nothing in tech is insurmountable.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015