Wednesday, June 24th 2020

Intel Gives its First Comments on Apple's Departure from x86

Apple on Monday formalized the beginning of its departure from Intel x86 machine architecture for its Mac computers. Apple makes up to 4 percent of Intel's annual CPU sales, according to a MarketWatch report. Apple is now scaling up its own A-series SoCs that use Arm CPU cores, up to performance levels relevant to Macs, and has implemented support for not just new and upcoming software ported to the new Arm machine architecture, but also software over form the iOS and iPadOS ecosystems on Mac, starting with its MacOS "Big Sur" operating system. We reached out to Intel for some of its first comments on the development.

In a comment to TechPowerUp, an Intel spokesperson said "Apple is a customer across several areas of our business, and we will continue to support them. Intel remains focused on delivering the most advanced PC experiences and a wide range of technology choices that redefine computing. We believe Intel-powered PCs—like those based on our forthcoming Tiger Lake mobile platform—provide global customers the best experience in the areas they value most, as well as the most open platform for developers, both today and into the future."
As we mentioned earlier, Apple only makes up a single-digit percentage of Intel's annual sales, and the loss of sales to Apple could mean more silicon that, in our opinion, Intel could divert to the DIY channel. Over the past two years, Intel was embattled with shortages in the DIY retail channel as the OEM channel soaked up the bulk of its silicon allocation.

Could Intel have done more to retain Apple? To begin answering this question, one must dig into possible reasons behind Apple's departure from Intel. Apple's industrial design, since the revolutionary MacBook (2016), has been toward thinner devices with more battery life, lesser compute on the client-end, and more on the cloud. The company sees a future in devices with iPad-like always-on availability, and battery life running into dozens of hours. Apple wants greater control over what its suppliers provide, to attain these goals.

While Intel has managed to bring SoC TDP down to 7 W thru 15 W with its 10 nm U-segment processors, these processors appear to be falling short of Apple's performance/Watt requirements. An example of chip design control Apple expects from its hardware suppliers can be found with AMD. The Sunnyvale-based firm supplies Apple with its most efficient bins of Radeon GPUs, and in cases such as the "Navi 12," Pro 5500, and Pro W5700X, even reserves graphics SKUs exclusive to Apple (not sold to its AIB channel).

In our opinion, Intel could have done more to retain Apple. The engineering department certainly rose to the occasion, developing "Lakefield." While performance numbers are still under the wraps, "Lakefield" is the kind of chip one would expect in an Apple portable - an extremely power-efficient client-segment processor capable of sub 1-Watt idle, high burst performance, and great customization flexibility thanks to its Foveros Packaging that lets system designers pick and choose the I/O components they want specific to their designs. On the other hand, the business-end of Intel may have fumbled with Apple. If designing chips that match Apple's requirements didn't work, Intel could have used the nuclear option - of pitching the x86 machine architecture itself.

Since its inception, Intel has licensed the x86 machine architecture to over a dozen companies. There are currently only two active licensees - AMD and VIA. The rest either withered away, or consolidated (VIA consolidated CenTaur and CYRIX). There have been no new licensees in at least the past 15 years (not if you don't count the sub-licensing of Zhaoxin by VIA or to THATIC by AMD). Apple could have been the first new x86 licensee in a generation, and with a little assistance, could have developed its own x86 SoCs. Apple pays for Unix in the era of Linux, and it would have surely indulged a well-crafted license deal with Intel.

Apple's departure from x86, despite amounting to a paltry percentage of Intel's sales, could reshape the client-computing segment. In our opinion, the success of the Arm machine architecture on Macs presents a greater threat to Intel than even x86 licensee AMD, as it could trigger other semiconductor firms with deep pockets and Arm licenses, such as NVIDIA and Samsung, to develop "high performance" Arm SoCs of their own, for thin-and-light notebooks. The "Wintel" era is long gone, and Microsoft is only too happy to indulge and grow its Windows-on-Arm ecosystem.

The future of Intel's client-segment silicon looks increasingly similar to that of Arm. Highly modular IP blocks, including from third-parties, integrate on innovative new packaging formats, such as Foveros, with an overwhelming focus on performance/Watt, thanks to hybrid cores, idle power-draw, battery life, and performance in bursts. A lot is riding on the success of the tiny "Lakefield."
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52 Comments on Intel Gives its First Comments on Apple's Departure from x86

#1
btarunr
Editor & Senior Moderator
This article is marked "editorial," as it includes a lot of commentary.
Posted on Reply
#2
Vayra86
I think the first step away from x86 for productivity machines will likely be some sort of hybrid. I also think that the only way to keep the software side well supported during the process, is by having applications become more agnostic to whatever they run on. Only some will leverage x86 perks, and some will leverage ARM perks.

Apple is going to be a nice test case really for how such a shift might happen.
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#3
Fouquin
btarunr
While Intel has managed to bring SoC TDP down to 7 W thru 15 W with its 10 nm U-segment processors, these processors appear to be falling short of Apple's performance/Watt requirements.
Intel missed their launch targets, their power targets, and their performance targets for two years. I've heard horror stories of early Ice-Lake silicon missing AVX entirely because the pipeline was broken, overshooting power targets by 46% and landing 15W TDP chips into the triple digits during peak turbo boost, later silicon popping charging circuits during extended stress before SMC tuning limits were built in. With Skylake chips they fucked the LLC, causing MMIO calls from IGP and fixed function blocks to L3 to flush the entire I/O queue into DRAM leading to huge headaches for audio engineers. Took years to figure it out and Intel just says, "Oops, but it's way faster guys look at the benchmarks!"

Apple's been patching Intel's shit for years and it's no surprise they're making moves to get out from under that burden.
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#4
W1zzard
btarunr
the success of the Arm machine architecture on Macs presents a greater threat to Intel than even x86 licensee AMD, as it could trigger other semiconductor firms with deep pockets and Arm licenses, such as NVIDIA and Samsung, to develop "high performance" Arm SoCs of their own, for thin-and-light notebooks
Nothing would stop Apple from selling their CPUs to other players in the mobile/tablet/laptop/server market, which could threaten Intel as a whole
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#5
XiGMAKiD
I believe Apple can pull this off because of their walled garden and tight control over it unlike PC ecosystem
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#6
ShurikN
"Intel Gives its First Comments on Apple's Departure from x86"

In the form of THE most generic corporate statement imaginable.
Posted on Reply
#7
btarunr
Editor & Senior Moderator
W1zzard
Nothing would stop Apple from selling their CPUs to other players in the mobile/tablet/laptop/server market, which could threaten Intel as a whole
Intel could restrict Apple SoCs to Apple-branded devices under the terms of its license.
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#8
Haile Selassie
DIY segment is severely overrated, it represents a fraction of sales.
This for sure will hurt Intel unless other big customers absorb the now available quantity.
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#9
R0H1T
In the short term Intel will not get hurt but then you also have to remember ARM servers are coming & they'll hurt Intel in a big way ~
Ampere’s Product List: 80 Cores, up to 3.3 GHz at 250 W; 128 Core in Q4

There's also Huawei with basically the entire CCP backing them, if you think Intel's struggles will be over just by a simple transition to 7nm(++) then you're dead wrong. The real pain could well be ahead, especially as more serious contenders with deep(er) pockets emerge in the server space!
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#10
theGryphon
This was an inevitable, long-time coming matter. X86 was way way to slow to come down to mobile power envelope (has it even??) and Apple HAD to make great strides in their ARM SOCs for iPhones and they've been doing that for years now. Add on top the deliciousness of a unified, controlled ecosystem for Apple, which I bet they've been dreaming of since eternity, Apple now all the means they need to make it happen.

It was inevitable since it's Apple's modus operandi and Intel has been a nice stop gap since the times of PowerPC. There was nothing Intel could do stop this.

There were a lot of things Intel could do "a long time ago" to enter the mobile space but their lack of foresight led to the need for and birth of ARM and you know the rest.
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#11
bug
Let's be honest here, Apple's desire for controlling everything and they already building their own CPUs for phones and tablets means the course was set a long time ago. They just couldn't reached the desired perf/W target till now.

And a custom design has one more advantage: you won't be able to compare systems and point out Apple is the more expensive choice, because they now have pixie dust in the CPU :P
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#12
Assimilator
While the loss for Intel in terms of physical product % may only be in the single digits, I'm quite sure that Intel's profit margin on the chips destined for Apple has been far higher than the rest of their market. So that's a potential double-digit revenue loss right there.

But the fact of the matter is this isn't about performance, or thermals, or anything that Intel did wrong or ARM did right; it's about control. Apple wants to control every aspect of their ecosystem, and people who buy overpriced Apple products are stupid enough that they'll happily drink whatever Kool-Aid Apple whips up to convince them that ARM-powered laptops are somehow superior to x86-powered ones. After all, it's not like they'll notice the speed difference anyway - there are only about a dozen real apps in the Apple ecosystem, the rest are app store trash that will run just as well on an ARM potato as they would on x86.
ShurikN
"Intel Gives its First Comments on Apple's Departure from x86"

In the form of THE most generic corporate statement imaginable.
I mean, what are Intel gonna say? They almost certainly knew this was coming months if not years ago, and they don't want to burn any bridges with Apple in case this grand experiment flops and Apple comes crawling back, so best not to say anything at all.
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#13
W1zzard
btarunr
Intel could restrict Apple SoCs to Apple-branded devices under the terms of its license.
Which license? Apple is making Arm CPUs and can sell them to whoever they want?
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#14
R0H1T
They'll never do that. Major part of the reason why Apple commands a premium for Macbooks or Mac (pros) is because they're the only game in town. They'll never allow anyone else to use there chips or build alternatives to their best profit makers, of course if they pivot to server then that's a whole different story.
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#15
FordGT90Concept
"I go fast!1!11!1!"
Apple has never shown any interest in selling the components it manufacturers to other vendors. I don't think Apple's ARM processor poses any more threat to Intel/AMD than Samsung, Qualcomm, and the rest of them that actually do sell ARM processors. Not to mention, it is unlikely anyone is interested in buying Apple processors because of all the proprietary/anticompetitive features Apple bakes into them. Apple is making these processors for itself, like it has done so for a decade to put in its mobile products.
Assimilator
While the loss for Intel in terms of physical product % may only be in the single digits, I'm quite sure that Intel's profit margin on the chips destined for Apple has been far higher than the rest of their market. So that's a potential double-digit revenue loss right there.
Doubtful. Apple is not known for being generous and they are known for demanding extra requirements from manufacturers (e.g. memory on AMD graphics cards for the large firmware). Intel makes money off the partnership, no doubt, but it is not likely to be much.
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#16
ncrs
FordGT90Concept
Doubtful. Apple is not known for being generous and they are known for demanding extra requirements from manufacturers (e.g. memory on AMD graphics cards for the large firmware). Intel makes money off the partnership, no doubt, but it is not likely to be much.
It's hard to tell how much it really is, but it looks like it's enough to warrant Intel designing special versions of processors for Apple use like the N versions of Ice Lake - Core i7-1068NG7 or previously i7-8510Y with the unusual UHD Graphics 617 iGPU which doesn't even seem to be on ARK. Whether they are custom or just highly binned parts only Intel/Apple know ;)
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#17
bug
Assimilator
While the loss for Intel in terms of physical product % may only be in the single digits, I'm quite sure that Intel's profit margin on the chips destined for Apple has been far higher than the rest of their market. So that's a potential double-digit revenue loss right there.
Why would you say that? Most chips Apple used weren't even high-end, they weren't customized in any way.
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#18
Assimilator
bug
Why would you say that? Most chips Apple used weren't even high-end, they weren't customized in any way.
Because Intel had Apple by the short and curlies when the latter was looking for a way out of the PowerPC hellhole, which coincidentally was the same time that Intel was the only game in town for x86 performance due to the catastrophic failure that was AMD's Bulldozer. Do you really think Intel didn't take that opportunity to negotiate a deal that's extremely favourable to them?

I can also guarantee that said deal was renegotiated to give Intel even more money once Apple announced their own ARM IP. At that point Intel had no incentive to help Apple anymore while Apple still needed Intel for laptop CPUs.

And Apple likely wouldn't have been too opposed to paying through its teeth for Intel's CPUs. After all, they just pass the costs downstream to their idiot customers, so it really doesn't affect them in any way.
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#19
mtcn77
Intel still has things going for it. Intel's big break still has to come from bulk silicon, as they are marketing for features that are so power hungry - such as 512 bit instructions - you have to have grand schemes of power delivery in play in order to prevent widespread blackout events throughout the chip. Intel has to have the memo on the limits of instruction delivery to curtail vdroop...
The issue at large is, they are currently marketing for things that are not presently launched. They are hyping. CNT transistors are all so wonderful, just not in circulation.
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#20
Punkenjoy
I don't recall who said that, but one of the big leader in Technlogy said that if you want to survive, you must always be paranoid and do your best to push things foward. You never know when things will be in the future.

Intel instead choosed to milk the market and make profits because they thought they were unmovable from their leader position. Things can change very quickly indeed. And in the technology market, doing catch up against a competitor that is moving foward quickly is really hard.

This is my opinion, and not a fact, but i think that the greatest Intel advantages was their Fabs and process. They seem to have lost that advantages to TMSC. Doesn't matter now if they are on par of behind, they are no longer in front of the competition. On the Architecture side, their process allowed them to still be competitive even when they had crappy arch.(like P4). I am not sure if all intel Arch were so better than the competition or just they had the better process to use. On the other side, AMD, didn't had a chance when they got their crappy arch (Bulldozer) because Crappy Arch + average process is a good receipe for failure.

As for Apple, they would have make the move at some point no matter how Intel performed. They just made their hands on CPU design with Iphones and IPads and they were confident that it was a good time to do the move.

It's just a really bad time for Intel. (and a good one for Apple).
Posted on Reply
#21
bug
Assimilator
Because Intel had Apple by the short and curlies when the latter was looking for a way out of the PowerPC hellhole, which coincidentally was the same time that Intel was the only game in town for x86 performance due to the catastrophic failure that was AMD's Bulldozer. Do you really think Intel didn't take that opportunity to negotiate a deal that's extremely favourable to them?

I can also guarantee that said deal was renegotiated to give Intel even more money once Apple announced their own ARM IP. At that point Intel had no incentive to help Apple anymore while Apple still needed Intel for laptop CPUs.

And Apple likely wouldn't have been too opposed to paying through its teeth for Intel's CPUs. After all, they just pass the costs downstream to their idiot customers, so it really doesn't affect them in any way.
Basically, you're just speculating.
Posted on Reply
#22
freeagent
If Apple was only pulling single digit sales, then how would that one line all of a sudden make up for their previous manufacturing shortcomings? Usually if a business is having a hard time keeping up with supply and demand, they will add another production line if the profit will be there. But we haven't seen that have we? All we've seen is excuses as to why they cant pull their balls together. I'm just an outsider looking in.
Posted on Reply
#23
bug
Punkenjoy
I don't recall who said that, but one of the big leader in Technlogy said that if you want to survive, you must always be paranoid and do your best to push things foward. You never know when things will be in the future.

Intel instead choosed to milk the market and make profits because they thought they were unmovable from their leader position. Things can change very quickly indeed. And in the technology market, doing catch up against a competitor that is moving foward quickly is really hard.
Anyone else would have done the same. Competing with yourself is just bad business.
And Intel didn't sit on their laurels either, they designed Ice Lake. Their problem is called 10nm so they can't actually sell Ice Lake.
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#24
PowerPC
Tim Cook said it's all about making the best product they can make with this move. So maybe it's time to see what Apple can make on their own and I have a feeling it might just blow everything else out the water in terms of performance. It doesn't just have to be about control like some people seem to think. Apple always wants to be the best and Intel wasn't supplying that for a verly long time.

If the move to ARM wasn't this reachable to apple, they would have long ago made a deal with AMD for Ryzen based Macs. But there might be a potential to do even better with ARM on Mac, who knows? They could more likely scale those iPad chips to a much more powerful form than even AMD could supply.

They could literally flip the whole damn table with this move and nobody will be able to compete. I think a lot of people should be scared like hell right now. Because if Apple can pull this off, all the Apple haters and people who call other people idiots for buying Apple products will be running to Apple for their performance. Nobody cares about the DIY segment outside of this forum, especially not for notebooks which most people already use as their primary device.
Posted on Reply
#25
claes
Reply: Apple’s Walled Garden

I wonder what you folks think about Apple opening up the SDK, packaging, and signing of system and kernel level extensions (is drivers for you Windows folks)?

This is a strange departure for Apple, where MacOS has always discouraged installing kernel extensions, even though there is a thriving community of “mods,” driver enhancements, and even custom/ported drivers for MacOS. For example, the github for 64-bit LSI RAID drivers has regular commits and new features for over a decade.

Part of me thinks they have to do this to ease the transition, but in the past they’ve only offered the SDK to licensed partners.

I don’t know anything about RISC vs... TRISK or whatever, and what that means for devices like USB storage devices. What does all of this mean?
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