Apple Silicon: The Roads Not Taken

[Please note: This was written ahead of today's announcements.]

My track record on predicting things out of the blue is pretty spotty, so here are a few things I can imagine but that will probably not materialize.

  • "Apple Pi"

    Raspberry Pi-like, "tinkerer-friendly" Mac, for under $100.

    Compare the prices of most single-board computers and the x86 models are steadily either significantly more expensive, or running four year old Intel Atom CPUs, or both. Not only do ARM processors not have the issue of having to keep Intel afloat, Apple has itself had experience putting out small SoCs in surprising places.

    If they would do this, chances are they'd make it all about hosting stuff on iCloud, writing code in Swift (maybe using a connected iPad). I don't quite see how it can both be what the Raspberry Pi crowd likes and what Apple likes at the same time. Apple's not interested in enabling tinkering. It's interested in making kids code, but on a high-margin iOS device and up. With the way macOS has moved recently, there's little making this a Mac as such, but it's more a Mac than iOS/iPadOS.

  • "Mac nano"

    A Mac mini the size of the Apple TV, for $199, with 4GB RAM, 64/128 GB of iPhone-like storage, hardly any I/O, and probably an A12, A13 or A14. BYODKM – hook up the display with HDMI or USB-C, hook up keyboard and mouse wirelessly or with a USB-C hub/adapter.

    The old Steve Jobs quote was "we don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of crap", and Apple can now comfortably pack in the computational power for an okay enough experience for what people are likely to plug into it. As long as it runs the software well enough, it's a candidate to bring people over from Windows, and they're about to lose the fallback "if all else fails you could use it as a Windows PC"; it needs to be cheaper.

    ("Mac SE" was already taken.)

  • An affordable Mac mini

    Take the current Mac mini, make it a bit smaller and make it affordable. Again – the Intel tax is gone, and Apple, if they want to, can churn out silicon in large scales by themselves already. The first Mac mini was $499 – there's no reason the first ARM Mac mini can't be.

All of these products essentially are based on this: there's an Apple that makes iPhones for $399 with industry-leading performance, and there's an Apple that sells wheels for almost twice that price. It's up to Apple to define what they want to sell and how they want to market it, and heading into a transition where you drop a hardware partner for your own designs is a perfect time to choose a new tack.

Say what you want about whether Apple wanted to offer lower-level products before, the price-to-performance ratio with Intel never made much sense. And if a Celeron or Atom didn't exactly scream high enough performance, neither did PowerPC chips that were lower-end than the ones they put in their low-end Macs back in those days. In a way, Apple's not had the opportunity to tackle this head-on at least for 20 years or so, so we don't really know that the idea has been rejected by Apple rather than by circumstance.

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