Remember Apple’s early CPU’s (central processing units; the brains in modern computers, smartphones, tablets and other devices? If you do, then it’s likely you’re sporting a diminishing crop of gray hair. The original Apple computer came with a 1Mhz Motorola 6502 CPU. 1Mhz. In 1984 Apple launched the Mac with an 8MHz Motorola MC68000 CPU, considered something of a screamer back in the day.
Even those ancient Macs do not predate the CPUs of yesteryear but all benefited from Moore’s Law, a much heralded and widely followed prediction from the past that transistors in a CPU would double every couple of years. It did just that for a few decades.
Apple CPU History
First, a little history. Way back when, Apple’s co-founder and resident genius Steve Wozniak chose Motorola as the chip supplier for the company’s early personal computers. Apple stuck with Motorola for years while the PC industry went with CPUs from Intel where Gordon Moore of Moore’s Law was a co-founder. Without getting into the whole CISC vs. RISC argument, suffice it to say Motorola’s CPUs worked well for Apple for years, as did AIM— the Apple, IBM, and Motorola alliance which brought about the PowerPC chips which ran in Macs for 15 years.
Second, by the time Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 Intel’s CPU’s were the dominant platform, and Apple’s reliance on the PowerPC’s from IBM and Motorola became a liability. Apple switched the Mac to Intel Inside in 2005, and the rest is history; Apple and Mac prospered as never before.
Intel executives say Moore’s Law will live on despite the fact that in recent years new CPUs have provided only nominal increases in performance. CEO Brian Krzanich:
I’ve heard the death of Moore’s law more times than anything else in my 34-year career and I’m here today to really show you and tell you that Moore’s law is alive and well and flourishing
Them’s fighting words. What came next was advertising the future at the Consumer Electronics Show:
Imagine in your living room being able to walk around the next hotel you’re going to visit, or visiting the event you’re going to… from the comfort of your home you could be transported to your favourite seat. This is the future of how you’ll view sports. You’ll have the opportunity to go to games you’ve never been to before
OK. When? How? And why couldn’t Intel make their CPU’s from last year notably better than the year before?
Krzanich says Intel will sell a 10-nanometer CPU this year and at prices lower than last year. If smaller is better– sipping less power while delivering more power– Intel’s hubris is shining, too.
Apples To Apples
It is common knowledge these days that Apple’s Steve Jobs did not care for IBM’s chip making business, and Motorola, which became FreeScale, wanted even less to do with Apple’s Mac needs, hence the switch to Intel Inside. Jobs was always considered a control freak and being beholden to chipmakers who didn’t build the chips he wanted for the Mac was a sore spot for the Apple CEO.
Not quite a decade ago Apple bought P.A. Semi, a chip design company founded a few years earlier by Daniel W. Dobberpuhl who worked on DEC’s highly acclaimed Alpha 21064 CPUs and StrongARM CPUs (a company where Apple was an early investor). Apple’s iPhone and iPad CPUs are ARM-based but now designed by the company’s own in-house team. That means Apple is in control of its own CPU destiny for mobile devices.
For the most part, Apple’s own A-series CPUs run rings around the mobile device competition, and thanks to owning the whole widget, provide better performance and use less power. That brings me to differentiation. Apple is all about differentiation, a key component of product marketing.
In economics and marketing, product differentiation (or simply differentiation) is the process of distinguishing a product or service from others, to make it more attractive to a particular target market. This involves differentiating it from competitors’ products as well as a firm’s own products.
This is what Apple has done better than competitors since the turn of the century. Apple Stores were easily differentiated from Best Buy, CompUSA, Circuit City and others that dared to push PCs instead of Macs. The iPod was easily differentiated from competing music players by capacity and ease of use. The iTunes Music and iPod for Windows launched a new era for Apple, which beget the iPhone in 2007, another product easily differentiated from competing smartphones of the era.
Today, all smartphones look and run much like an iPhone. All tablets look and feel much like iPads. All Windows and Chromebook-based PC notebooks have copied Apple’s Mac design. If visual differences are nominal between Windows 10 and macOS, and between iOS and Android OS, how can Apple differentiate and continue to prosper? Apple does just that many ways, CPU design being only one of many. Apple Stores provide customer support and service. The Apple ecosystem provide a seamless integration between device, applications, online services, and media. iPhones and iPads deliver media to televisions via Apple TV. A customer base of over 1-billion indicates Apple’s ecosystem is thriving.
Despite owning the lion’s share of profits in every industry segment, Apple, as always, struggles. iPhone, iPad, and Mac sales are down again while the services segment– from apps to music to TV shows and other add-ons– is the most rapidly growing part of the company’s business. There are some visible cracks in Apple’s walled garden. Mac users are in an uproar over anemic upgrades (and in some case, no upgrades for years) and accuse the company of becoming a luxury technology brand that easily abandons what was once the core of the company’s success.
Apple wants to control its own destiny and yet struggles to do so in the face of Moore’s Law and the constant need to differentiate products at every turn; competing against smaller rivals who copy the company’s designs incessantly.
My fear is that the Apple we knew just a few years ago has become timid and shy, resting on the laurels of recent success but without a vision of the future. I don’t see evidence that my fears are ungrounded.