Tick-tock, tick-tock, here’s another reason Apple may make its own Mac chips

Here’s another reason why Apple may consider making its own chips: as noted by MIT Technology Review, Intel has disclosed in a regulatory filing last month that it’s slowing the pace with which it launches new chip-making technology, potentially abandoning its “tick-tock” model. 

The gap between successive generations of chips with new, smaller transistors will widen. With the transistors in Intel’s latest chips already as small as 14 nanometers, it is becoming more difficult to shrink them further in a way that's cost-effective for production.

Following the tick-tock model, Intel committed to continued innovations in manufacturing process technology and processor microarchitecture in alternating “tick” and “tock” cycles. With every "tick" cycle, the goal was to advance manufacturing process technology and continue to deliver the expected benefits of Moore’s Law to users. 

Moore’s Law says overall processing power for computers will double every two years — which has pretty much held true for years. In alternating “tock” cycles, Intel used the previous “tick” cycle’s manufacturing process technologies to introduce the next big innovation in processor microarchitecture.

In the regulatory filing, Intel said there’s now more to be had from adding new capabilities into its chips and expanding their possible use cases than from fighting against the laws of physics in an attempt to extend the life of Moore's Law.

"We have continued expanding on the advances anticipated by Moore's Law by bringing new capabilities into silicon and producing new products optimized for a wider variety of applications," the company wrote. "We expect these advances will result in a significant reduction in transistor leakage, lower active power, and an increase in transistor density to enable more smaller form factors, such as powerful, feature-rich phones and tablets with a longer battery life.”

Currently, Macs already go two to three years between major updates. This could stretch out even longer now. If Apple isn’t happy with that, it may decide to make its own chips (which I think it will anyway).

By designing its own chips, Apple can build hardware and software that work together better than any off-the-shelf processor. When it introduced its A7 chip for the iPhone, Apple described it as “forward thinking” and having a “desktop-class architecture.”  

The company describes the A9X chip in the iPad Pro faster than 80% of the portable PCs shipped over the last 12 months in CPU tasks and 90 percent of portable PCs in graphics performance. You can be sure that A10X and A11X processors are in the works.

Apple certainly has the money to make its own chips. Admittedly, such a task would be a huge one, even for Apple. However, the groundwork has been laid.

In 2008 Apple bought P.A. Semi, a chip designer that made “energy-efficient processors based on the PowerPC architecture that Apple used in Macs for years before adopting Intel’s x86 chips.” In December 2008 the company picked up a 3.6 percent stake in Imagination Technologies,  a graphics chip maker.  In 2010, Apple scooped up Intrinsity, which specializes in ARM processors. In August 2015 Apple acquired Passif Semiconductor, which manufactures switch-based wireless transceivers with low power consumption and a small footprint.

What’s more, Seeking Alpha thinks Apple will design its own Mac chips for three reasons:

  • Apple is capable of scaling their custom ARMv8 core design to replace the Intel chips which power their Macs, thus unifying all their products under a single Instruction Set Architecture.
  • Apple could add custom hardware and accelerators to Mac chips and exploit them very well within the operating system and software applications to improve product differentiation and market share.
  • Apple’s profit margins would increase significantly if it were to use its own designed chips rather than Intel designed chips.