What happens when the world’s most ambitious mobile chip designer is constrained by the production capacity of its only chip manufacturing partner? Thanks to Apple’s introduction of M1 chips for Macs this week, we might soon find out, but leading chip fabricator TSMC won’t be the one to blame.
It’s not hyperbole to state that Apple has pushed the entire mobile chip industry forward, and is now poised to do the same with PC chips. In 2013, Apple released the world’s first 64-bit mobile CPU, A7, which shocked rival chip designers by bringing iPhones closer to processing parity with low-end PCs. Five years later, the A12X Bionic enabled iPad tablets to match the performance of more expensive Intel Core i7 MacBooks, foreshadowing the end of Apple’s need for Intel chips. Now the M1 is here, and thanks to a breakthrough 5-nanometer manufacturing process, the tiny chip packs enough transistors to power both desktop and laptop PCs.
In the past, Apple blamed its CPU-making partners for failing to either keep up with industry trends or push past them, suggesting that it could only evolve its Mac computers with newer and more power-efficient parts made by someone else. Now Apple’s in full control of the Mac’s destiny, relying on its long-term partner TSMC to manufacture chips based on Apple designs. And though the companies have collectively gambled on cutting-edge 5-nanometer manufacturing technology to differentiate Macs from rival PCs, it’s highly unlikely that Apple will blame its Taiwanese fabricator for any of the Mac’s evolutionary failures going forward. For better or worse, Apple is calling all the shots now.
Apple’s stormy relationships with prior chipmakers were legendary: The company publicly ended its PowerPC CPU relationship with IBM in 2005, cut Samsung out of its mobile processor supply chain in the mid-2010s, and began transitioning away from Intel — first for modems, then for CPUs — over the past year. In IBM’s and Intel’s cases, Apple left for greener chip pastures, but with Samsung, Apple wanted to stop buying parts from a company that was actively competing in its core mobile and PC businesses. Piece by piece, TSMC won the chip…