The iPhone’s new chip should worry Intel – The Verge

In a game of chess, there are occasions when you’ll have almost your entire army of pieces still on the board, but positioned in such a way that their systematic downfall is all but assured. As The Matrix’s Agent Smith put it to an overweening police lieutenant, “your men are already dead.” We may be experiencing such a moment in the tech industry today, thanks to Apple’s exceptional new A10 Fusion chip, which threatens to devour a big chunk of Intel’s heretofore imperious silicon army.

Now, before you accuse me of being high on my own metaphorical supply, I’m not saying that Intel will be crippled or surpassed anytime soon. But I am arguing that the chip giant is under a substantial threat, the likes of which it hasn’t faced for a long time, maybe ever. A quick look at the Geekbench scores attained by the iPhone 7 quantifies a staggering achievement: the single-core performance of Apple’s latest generation of smartphone processors has basically caught up with Intel’s laptops CPUs. The A10 chip inside the iPhone 7 comfortably outpaces its predecessors and Android rivals, and even outdoes a wide catalog of relatively recent Mac computers (including the not-so-recent Mac Pro). The iPhone’s notoriously hard to benchmark against anything else and this is just one metric, but it’s illustrative of Apple’s accelerating momentum and mobile focus.

Intel has for many years been the undisputed champion of desktop and laptop processors running the x86 instruction set. Its sole competitor, AMD, hasn’t actually been competitive since around the turn of the century, and we have the Wintel portmanteau reminding us of the enduring dominance of Intel’s chips and Microsoft’s Windows OS in the years since. But many things have changed since the days of comparing AMD’s Thunderbird against Intel’s Pentium.

The first thing — the one we’re all aware of, but never really adequately conscious of — is that the whole world is moving to mobile computing. This isn’t some slow transition off on the distant horizon like AI, it’s a thing happening right now. Advertisers are shifting their spending from desktop to mobile faster than they are pulling it out of print media, and people are buying smartphones at five times the rate that they’re acquiring new PCs. IDC’s 2015 figures show 1.43 billion smartphones shipped versus 276 million PCs. Apple by itself shipped more iPhones (74.8 million) in the last quarter of last year than the entire PC industry (71.9 million) managed to ship PCs.

It’s already the case, by sheer force of numbers, that Apple’s A series of mobile processors are at least as important and market-leading as Intel’s vast portfolio of x86 chips. But the present pseudo-equilibrium between them is being drastically upset by Apple’s leap in performance with the new A10 Fusion. By straying into the performance waters previously reserved for Intel’s laptop CPUs, Apple is teasing us with the question of why not inject the A10 (or its successors) into actual laptops? Why shouldn’t the next MacBook run on the same chip as the current iPhone? Granted, the MacBook’s macOS is based on x86 whereas the A chips all use the ARM architecture, but then an equally interesting question might be whether Apple shouldn’t just bite the bullet and make iOS its universal operating system.

It sounds wild, but the A10 looks to have the power and efficiency to handle the workload of a full PC. This coalescence of mobile and desktop PCs is driven by forces on both sides: mobile chips are getting more potent at the same time as our power needs are shrinking and our tasks become more mobile. If you think your workplace isn’t changing much because there are a bunch of weathered Dell workstations sitting next to frumpy HP printers, consider just how much more work every one of your officemates is doing outside the office, on their phone. And all those grand and power-hungry x86 applications that might have kept people running macOS — Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom being two key examples — well, they’re being ported to iOS in almost their full functionality, having been incentivized by the existence of Apple’s iPad Pro line, last year’s harbinger for this year’s performance jump.

Unlike Windows, whose x86 reliance is tied to its dominance of the lucrative PC gaming market, Apple really has very few anchors locking it down to macOS. The Cupertino company has been investing the vast majority of its development time into the mobile iOS for years now, and that shows in the different rates of progress between its two pieces of software. macOS is, in many ways, legacy software just waiting for the right moment to be deprecated. It’s getting a fresh lick of paint now and then, but most of its novelties now relate to how it links back to Apple’s core iOS and iPhone business.

It’s difficult for those of my generation — people who grew up with the beige PC box as a cultish object of desire and the symbol of cutting-edge computing — to understand just how divorced the modern world and population have become from the desktop PC. The desktop today is akin to what mainframes were in the past: an imposing, burring, gargantuan construction that you only resort to when you really need to get some heavy work done.

There will always be room for Intel’s dominance to persist. As workloads increase in size and complexity, the opportunities to turn them into parallel tasks improve, and that’s where machines like the 12-core Mac Pro will handily outdo the iPhone 7. Of course. You can also strap massive graphics cards and massive amounts of RAM onto a tower PC, and you won’t have to worry about limitations of storage either. But the market for such high-end power is small and shrinking. Our video production needs today are better characterized by Snapchat Live Stories than Adobe Premiere Pro.

Intel already let Apple down once with the original MacBook’s underpowered Core M processor, and the absence of an Intel Skylake upgrade for either the MacBook Pro or Air this year also seems to have been caused by Apple’s dissatisfaction with Intel’s CPUs. There is nothing that Apple would like to do more than rid itself of its reliance on Intel, which would eliminate such unforeseen hiccups in the future. Apple is famous for its vertical integration, owning and controlling every possible aspect of its supply and production chain, and switching to its own processor chips across all devices would be the next logical improvement in that integration.

If you want to develop the next great processor, you’d better be going mobile first and building from there. Intel’s decades of futile attempts to shrink desktop chips into mobile devices have shown how not to do things. Now Apple’s persistent and apparently accelerating performance improvement with the A series suggests it might have found the right path through. It’s fitting that this new chip is called A10 Fusion, because the path it’s leading us on will eventually lead to the merging of what we now consider two distinct classes of mobile and desktop PCs. As Morpheus once put it, “it is simply a matter of time.”

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