On Tuesday, Apple announced its first personal computers powered using chips that are more like those in an iPhone than those in a typical PC. The machines are the $999 13-inch MacBook Air, the $699 Mac Mini and the $1,299 MacBook Pro. That alone is exciting to tech fans, but it's also a sign of what's possibly to come, whether you buy a Mac or not. Apple has said it's going to change the brains of its computers over the next couple of years. Starting with the just-unveiled machines, Apple is going to throw its weight behind its self-made chips.
Most people may not care about a change to a small chip in their Mac computers, but it could mean big changes for Apple and the tech industry, too. For the past 14 years, Apple has relied on Intel-made chips to power its laptop and desktop computers. Apple has spent more than a decade on research and development, and at least $1 billion buying more than half a dozen companies, to create the M1, a chip similar to those in iPhones and iPads and that takes on Intel. Now Apple's first computers powered by the M1 have been made available for preorder and will start shipping next week.
Apple says the M1 is more powerful and energy efficient, allowing for potentially smaller and slimmer designs, longer battery life and new technologies as well.
"Advancements of this magnitude only come from making bold changes," Apple CEO Tim Cook said during Apple's event Tuesday. He added that Apple's own chips will usher in new technologies and "extraordinary battery life" from the computers. "This is exactly why we are transitioning the Mac to Apple silicon," Cook added.
For Apple, this moment has been more than a decade in the making. The question that's nagged the company since co-founder Steve Jobs died in 2011 is, What comes next? Jobs ushered in the Mac computer, the iMac all-in-one desktop, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Since his death, Apple's biggest new product has been the Apple Watch, which has turned into an enormous business. Last year it outsold, by a huge margin, the entire Swiss watch industry. Still, it's not an iPhone-like dent in the universe.
By combining all its devices under the same chips and common code, Apple will be able to offer an experience that truly spans its desktops, laptops, phones and watches. The company has already said app developers will be able to create one app and send it to all devices, with adjustments for keyboard and mouse versus finger touch and gestures.
The result may be a further blurring of the lines between what a computer is, and what it's meant to do.
The changes are already beginning with Apple's newest computer software, MacOS 11 Big Sur, which brings to PCs even more of the icons, sounds and general look of the iOS software that powers iPhones. Big Sur will be made available on Thursday for free for recently made Macs.
"With the current Mac -- it's the Mac versus the PC," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies. "Now, if it behaves like an iPhone, I can manage it like an extension of my iOS devices."
What may come
Apple says its transition to new chips may be a little bumpy, as app developers change the way their apps are coded to work with this new machinery. In the meantime, Apple promises most of the software we all use, including web browsers; photo and movie editors from all sorts of companies; and even Microsoft's popular Office suite of programs, will work on the new machines on day one.
What's likely to change more than anything involves a component other than the chip for the laptop and desktop. Apple's iPhones and iPads don't have fans to keep their chips cool. So far, the company has pulled off that same trick with its MacBook Air laptops, though its new Mac Mini and MacBook Pro do have fans.
But aside from those changes, and what-if speculation about detachable laptop-iPad hybrids, Apple watchers seem hard pressed to come up with design-change ideas. (Writer's note: Apple, please bring back the MagSafe magnetic charging cables to the laptops. Pretty please.)
Another longer term play may be the integration of cellular service into these types of mobile chips. Computers with built-in cellular radios have been niche products at best, but these kinds of processors are designed to work with cellular radios. People buy connected iPads all the time -- a connected MacBook Air isn't a huge leap.
Though that's not likely to come out any time soon, cell carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon will probably be eager to get 5G into a future generation of Apple's silicon-based MacBooks.
New way to pay
By switching to its own chips and away from ones made by Intel, Apple will get more than the expected performance and power efficiency boost. It'll be able to more closely tune its software to work with its specialized chips, for example. And the company will also be able to manage manufacturing.
"When you control your own destiny and control your own parts, you can save money," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at Technalysis Research.
Generally, O'Donnell said, chip prices make up at least 20% of a laptop's costs. If Apple were to turn those savings into lower prices, it could attract new people who now just won't pay or can't afford the company's laptops, which start at $999.
It may also spark consumer interest and spur competition from other PC makers, who've so far only toyed with using mobile-phone chips in computers (though with just under 7% market share in 2019, according to IDC).
But the Apple credit card could be the company's true ace up its sleeve, analysts say. Putting Macs on a two-year, interest-free installment plan could get people hooked on the idea of buying a computer for about $42 a month.
"Getting the Mac into a larger population could be huge," O'Donnell said.
Regardless, Apple's move is bound to make waves, both by showing us how powerful its iPhone chips are, and potentially spurring the industry to change their devices to keep up.
"This is the biggest announcement in 'computers' in a long time," tweeted Steven Sinofsky, a venture capitalist who oversaw Microsoft's Windows software division more than a decade ago. "The real impact is the direction this takes things."