Apple's new computers will not be ARM

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Catherine Le Nevez
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We have a natural tendency to extremes, be it Yin and Yan, left and right, soccer teams or good or bad. Categorization allows us to work with simple structures and possibly avoid endless discussions and qualifications.

When Apple announced it will take the next big step into the future, it doesn't even mention ARM once. They just say that they will benefit from the experience they have gained by developing the chips for the iPhone and iPad.

Rumors of Apple's transition to using the ARM architecture have been going on for a decade. In fact, nine years ago we published a story that Intel offered to make Apple's ARM chips.

But maybe first explain what exactly ARM is ...

What is ARM

Perhaps the first thing to say is that ARM is not a chip maker, [Update 26/06/20] ARM produces chips for all kinds of applications, but for markets very different from those of Intel or AMD. ARM is also an architecture, a system for programming chips, which is what Apple licenses. So Apple has to go to a chip factory (like TMSC) to make the model it designed.

Many of the terms used on the ARM journey are familiar to veteran Mac users, as we've heard from them throughout the day.

Wikipedia says

ARM, Already  Advanced RISC Machine, originally  Acorn RISC Machine, is a 32-bit RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer = Computer with reduced instruction set) architecture and, with the arrival of its V8-A version, also 64-bit, developed by ARM Holdings. It used to be called Advanced RISC Machine and formerly Acorn RISC Machine. The ARM architecture is the 32 and 64 bit instruction set most used in the units produced (...)

A RISC-based design approach allows ARM processors to require fewer transistors than CISC x86 processors, typical of most personal computers. This design approach therefore leads to a reduction in costs, heat and energy. These features are desirable for battery powered devices such as cell phones, tablets, etc.

As the quote says, RISC stands for Computers with a reduced instruction set. In case you didn't know, the chips that Apple used, which commercially was called PowerPC, were of RISC architecture. The PowerPCs, launched in 1994, are the chips that emerged from the alliance between Apple, Motorola and IBM to beat Intel. When it was proved that the level of sales of Apple computers was not enough to maintain the high level of research and development necessary to compete with Intel processors, Apple ditched the PowerPc and started using the same chips as the rest of the world. .

To end the salad of acronyms, early Macintosh computers used the Complex Instruction Set Computer (CISC) architecture of the Motorola MC68000 chips.

But the relationship between Apple and ARM does not end there ...

Newton, the origin

In the late 80s, Apple was looking for a suitable processor for the portable units that would become the PDA known as Newton. Apple's chip manufacturing partner VLSI Technology operated Apple Dacian, a small company in Cambridge, England, which owned a low-power, high-efficiency processor. Acorn Computers, also a PC maker, had developed their own processor because they didn't want to buy expensive developments from Intel or Motorola.

However, Acorn did not have the financial resources to develop a complex and powerful processor, so they ended up creating a RISC architecture-based device with a simple structure. They called it Acorn RISC Machine or ARM. At VLSI, who made these PC processors for Acorn, it was John Stockton who spoke to Newton's team about the ARM processor. Eventually Larry Tessler of Apple was convinced that they should use ARM processors for the Newton.

The birth of ARM

But Apple wanted to make some changes to the original ARM processor, to meet Newton's needs, and Acorn didn't have the budget to develop those changes on its own. In the fall of 1990, over the course of six weeks, a joint venture was negotiated between Apple, VLSI Technology and Acorn. Acorn would provide the labor, Apple Computers would provide the funding, and VLSI Technology would provide the design development tools.

On November 27, 1990, Acorn, Apple and VLSI joined forces to create a new company that changed its name from "Acorn RISC Machine" to "Advanced RISC Machine". Robin Saxby officially launched Advanced RISC Machines or ARM with the aim of occupying the growing market for low-cost, high-performance 32-bit RISC chips. Apple, which had convinced Acorn to make ARM independent of any platform, took 43% of the new company for a total of about $ 3 million.

Apple began using the first generation of ARM chips in its Newton Message Pad, released in 1993. In addition to supplying chips to Apple and Acorn, ARM began licensing the rights to manufacture its chip designs and offering a license for architecture. those tech companies interested in incorporating and modifying ARM technology in their chip designs (just like Apple does with iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch chip,…). ARM quickly became the de facto standard for drunk and mobile chips.

As a curiosity, it is worth mentioning that ARM returned the favor to Apple by becoming a source of income during the late 1990s. Between 1998 and 2003, Apple sold its shares for approximately $ 1,1 billion. That cash injection allowed Steve Jobs to fund new projects and rebuild the battered computer company he had founded.


What will Apple do?

Once it is clear that ARM "is nothing", that is, it is a concrete way of organizing the instructions of a processor, which Apple licenses and modifies to obtain those results that amaze the world year after year, it cannot be said that Apple will switch to ARM for computers.

The "Apple Silicon" (Apple Silicon), as it says in its presentation, is a SoC, or a System on a Chip (system on a chip), a set of chips that are manufactured together to achieve maximum size optimization , power consumption and communication speed.

Perhaps now it is worth remembering the number of chips that Apple is already designing and manufacturing (through its partners) to fit them into all of its devices:

In its WWDC presentation, Apple highlighted a number of features in its proprietary SoCs that will enhance future Macs. Simply using a CPU with an ARM core wasn't even on the list. Most of the benefits that Apple highlighted were in the features Apple developed for its SoCs. 

These benefits include highly efficient audio processing, low power video playback, advanced battery management, high performance storage controller, machine learning accelerators, Secure Enclave, performance controller, camera processor. Neural Engine, the Apple GPU and a unified memory architecture.

Apple's ability to integrate all the chips it has developed for its devices into a single card, from the ones that go into the AirPods or HomePods, to the studio effects of the iPhone's camera, etc. by optimizing their operating system to take full advantage of these instructions, they make the abandonment of Intel mean far beyond ARM.

That's why the new Apple computers won't be ARM. There will be much more.

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