How Close Are We to Peak CPU and What Does That Mean for Apple and Microsoft?

 

How Close Are We to Peak CPU and What Does That Mean for Apple and Microsoft?

The power of the new Apple chips is far more than most of us need — or is it?

Photo by author

I imagine that a few people at Microsoft and Intel watched Apple’s presentation on the M1 Max and M1 Pro CPUs with sinking stomachs. Both the spiel and the specs felt like one sledgehammer blow after another.

A headline at the very geeky Anandtech site read “Apple Announces M1 Pro & M1 Max: Giant New Arm SoCs with All-Out Performance” and Rene Ritchie’s Youtube review called it a “Game Changer!” and said, “These are monsters!”

So, extremely fast CPUs with low power consumption. Someone else remarked “This kills the Surface Pro”.

Does it? Does it even threaten the PC market?

I don’t know. Certainly, if you want that much power.How many of us need that? I certainly do not; I don’t even need the power of the M1 MacBook Air I’m typing on right now, though that’s the lowest power computer currently in the MacBook line. I can’t buy anything less powerful and soon that will be true in the PC market as well. I do not see this hurting Microsoft. Bad management might, but Apple’s M1 will not. I haven’t sold my Microsoft stock.

Back to 1986

Consider the Intel 80386. When I was doing my early work with SCO Unix in the mid 1980’s, the 386 was what was powering the machines. That chip remained powerful in the PC market for more than a decade. After its PC glory faded, it found its way into embedded systems, musical instruments, and even mobile phones.

That’s where the power of the M1 Max/Pro will be eventually. In cheap phones, smart IoT home control devices, and toys. No, I’m not saying these will be Apple chips necessarily; Intel has plans for very similar designs. My point is that low end chips will be what was once extremely powerful.

We don’t need it!

This is where somebody will say something like “You’ll never need anything like that in the low end.”

Never say never. That 80386 I mentioned above started out with 275,000 transistors. If someone had told me then that 35 years later I’d be using the low end of the Apple computer line and that its chip would have 16 billion transistors, I would have laughed. Why would a computer need that?

Back to the future

I don’t know why, but I could make some guesses. Today, we have “hyper-local” weather. Imagine that you had truly local weather sensing and forecasting right in your house. We have FaceTime and Zoom and Skype today, how about versions with 3-D holographic projections? Let’s scale that up to a convention center where we move through a thoroughly realistic but entirely artificial hall of exhibitors and attendees. Never been to the Grand Canyon? Let’s use humongous computing power to go traveling.

Shopping? Use overwhelming computing power to virtually pick out the specific piece of fruit you want after feeling its texture, firmness, and even smelling it. I think we are a long way from running out of things we can use more processing power to do.

We can’t do any of that very well now, but when chips like the M1 Max are in children’s toys, their more powerful descendants might be able to do all that and more. I might even live long enough to see some of that. Actually, who knows? There might be microscopic health maintenance machines circulating in my blood guided by an immensely powerful computer on my wrist.

So never say never. And again, I’m not saying this is Apple taking over the world. I’m saying that powerful chips like this will sink down-market as new designs supplant them.

Back to now

Apple made a big splash this week. The new MacBook Pros open up new possibilities for laptops. Film editing software and more will change to use that power. Will it rival serious professional equipment? For some tasks, sure. For others, no, because the more that you can do, the more demands will come. The ground will keep shifting; given sufficient need and money, you will always see a special purpose machine outperform a general purpose computer.

Intel

I sold all my Intel stock because I see them as dead men walking, but I could be completely wrong about that. It looks like Intel is planning to move to the same “big.LITTLE” architecture (mixing high and low performance cores on one chip) that Apple has used on ARM. I think the fly in that ointment is that Apple is controlling all the hardware in their products; Intel is selling chips that will have to work with who knows what hardware. But that may not be as important as I think it is.

You

Whether you buy PCs, Macs, tablets, phones, or nothing at all, powerful CPUs will change your life. What’s unimaginable today will be at the Dollar Store before you know it.

Unless

Unless all this promise is destroyed by climate change, pandemics, political unrest, war, or worse.

What a shame that would be.

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