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Why Apple is dumping Intel—and what we might get out of it

November 9, 2020, 2:43 PM UTC

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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).

Now bake!

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.”     

Aaron Pressman


Hold me accountable. Speaking of old Tim Cook quotes, the CEO's public explanation of Apple sales problems in November 2018 was not accurate, and now a judge is allowing a shareholder lawsuit over the comments to proceed. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, who is also hearing the Apple-Epic Games lawsuit, said it “strains credulity” to believe Cook didn't know about lagging sales in China when he said sales in China were not lagging. Apple had to cut its sales forecast weeks later, blaming the shortfall on China. Apple says shareholders were not defrauded.

In other problematic Apple news, the company suspended major Taiwanese supplier Pegatron amid reports of student worker and overtime violations that included falsified paperwork. Pegatron conceded it had problems and said it is taking quick action to correct the violations. In happier Apple news, YouTubers liked the iPhone Mini and iPhone Pro Max.

Vaccination recalibration. News out Monday morning that Pfizer has almost perfected a COVID-19 vaccine sent the stock market skyrocketing. Well, not the entire market. Many tech stocks that benefited from the pandemic plunged in pre-market trading. Peloton fell 15%, Zoom lost 14%, and Netflix and Shopify dropped.

Money money on my mind. Popular podcasts like Dirty John and Dr. Death have producer Wondery in the spotlight. Apple and Sony Music Entertainment are considering buying the startup for $300 million to $400 million, which would be the biggest deal yet for a podcaster, Bloomberg reports.

Filter patrol. Despite the best efforts of mice and men, election misinformation is running rampant on social media. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have tried to pull or post warning labels on the misleading posts and videos, but can't keep up, a tech policy expert at the nonpartisan Center for American Progress tells Fortune. Meanwhile, conservative-run Twitter clone Parler has become the most downloaded app in the country over the weekend (and sent a lot of traffic to my June piece "Parler is the new Twitter for conservatives. Here’s what you need to know").

Good egg makes good. AT&T added one of my favorite people to its board of directors. Seriously. Bill Kennard, who was chair of the Federal Communications Commission in the 1990s when I covered the agency, will replace Randall Stephens as chairman of the board of the troubled telecom giant in January. Kennard has also been ambassador to the European Union in the Obama administration and a managing director at the Carlyle Group.

First, you've gotta get mad. Debt collectors for the first time will be allowed to harass, sorry, I mean communicate, with consumers via voice mail, email, and text message under new rules from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued on Friday. My bet is this statement from CFPB director Kathy Kraninger will not age well: "With this modernized debt collection rule, consumers will have greater control when communicating with debt collectors.”


As debate over the treatment of political content on social media rages on, Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center, has some ideas to make things better in an essay for the MIT Technology Review.

We need more transparency. Misinformation is not solely about the facts; it’s about who gets to say what the facts are. Fair content moderation decisions are key to public accountability.

Rather than hold on to technostalgia for a time when it wasn’t this bad, sometimes it is worth asking what it would take to uninvent social media, so that we can chart a course for the web we want—a web that promotes democracy, knowledge, care, and equity. Otherwise, every unexplained decision by tech companies about access to information potentially becomes fodder for conspiracists and, even worse, the foundation for overreaching governmental policy.


What’s in a name? For Tesla’s Full Self Driving, it may be danger By David Z. Morris

Amidst an explosion in personal finance apps, this startup wants to bring back the spreadsheet By Brett Haensel

The Facebook ad boycott ended months ago. But some big companies continue the fight By Danielle Abril

China’s markets welcome homegrown tech—but Ant’s suspended IPO is a reminder of the risks By Grady McGregor

Why a Biden presidency won’t end the U.S.-China trade war By Eamon Barrett

To take control of your career, ask for what you want—directly and explicitly By Kara Goldin

Gift Guide: Books for everyone on your gift list By Rachel King

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The events of last week's actual episode of the Great British Baking Show are too sad to discuss, especially while avoiding spoilers. So instead, please check out a diverting and lyrical essay I came across this weekend by Massachusetts writer Steve Edwards, as he time travels in his mind and ponders the seasonal comings and goings of the night-time chirping of crickets. Have a calm start to your week.