ARM Transition: Apple vs Microsoft

Thanks, it is cool to see this actually starting to come together. Although I guess it will happen slighly later than I predicted.

It will indeed be exciting to see how this will play out in the battle between Microsoft and Apple. I will place my bets on Apple on this one however, for the following reasons:

  1. Apple already has extensive experience with ARM. They were doing all the way back in the Newton years, and they have extensive experience designing their own ARM chips today.
  2. Apple ARM CPUs are world beating. They have been proving with A9 to A12 that they are leaders in this field squeezing out the highest per thread performance. Microsoft has no such track record.
  3. Proven track record. Apple has made complete CPU transitions for their whole platform, not once, not twice but three times!! Motorola 680x0 to PowerPC and finally to x86 intel. Each time they have been exceptionally good at the execution. The Microsoft switch from 16 bit DOS to 32 bit Windows was significantly messier. The switch from single-user to multi-user OS, was also quite messy IMHO.
  4. Full control of the platform: Apple makes the OS, the compiler, the hardware and most of the software distribution through the App store. That means that rolling out a switch from intel to ARM is something that will be much easier to accomplish on the Mac platform than PCs which are made up of a huge number of companies which have to be coordinated.
  5. Reputation of ruthlessness. Companies, customers and partners know that when Apple makes major transitions, it is not half hearted. They are all in and there is no backtracking. They have shown willigness to upset customers and partners in the past. This is something Microsoft has been extremely reluctant to do. Microsoft frequently backtracks and offer alternatives to customers. Thus customers and partners of Microsoft often don’t go ahead with necessary transitions.

Thus I think Apple will in fact have an advantage they don’t have today. Intel does not license out their designs or give exclusive access. That means there was not even a theoretical possibility of Apple having a hardware advantage over its competitors. Anything Apple could buy, its competitors could buy as well. Now anyone can buy ARM reference designs or buy Qualcomm Snapdragon, however ARM gives companies like Apple the ability to add their own advantages.

This gives a unique advantage to Apple that Microsoft does not really have. On the PC platform all hardware is generally awailable to everyone. Should Qualcomm come up with a better ARM design than Apple, nothing prevents Apple from simply buying their chips.

Microsoft however could take the Apple route and make unique hardware only for Microsoft laptops. However that would put Microsoft in a difficult position. Microsoft is selling themselves as a partner to all PC manufacturers. Selling both the operating system while also competing in the hardware business with specialized hardware would look disloyal. It is a hard to be a good partner when you are also being a direct competitor.

Apple does not have this interest conflict as they already to full vertical integration.

A possiblity in the future is that companies such as HP and Dell start making their own ARM alternatives to get an edge, however without control of the operating system, this will be a bigger challenge for them than Apple.

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