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Forget ARM, Apple should embrace the Zen

First a disclaimer. most of what I write here is based on performance leaks and benchmarks. AMD confirmed the benchmarks as well as their pricing this morning, but the devil is always in the details, and AMD has a history of bugs, glitches and overpromises. They also saved X86 once upone a time with the 64bit instruction-set and helped assure X86's victory over many competiting chip.

For a while now, Accidental Tech Podcast, Daring Fireball , and the other usual voices and unusual voices have been speculating that Apple would be transitioning from Intel for ARM for Macs. This is due to a lack of performance improvements and restrictions and schedule problems with Intel. There is enough smoke here to conclude there is fire although it may just be in a low power sleep mode fire.

CPU transitions are risky. While Apple has survived CPU migrations twice, Commodore lost relevance with the transition from the 6502 to the Motorola 68k and was desperately trying to pull off a RISC transition when the company went bankrupt. Billions of dollars were lost and continue to be lost by Intel, HP, and Oracle over Intel’s failed transition to the Itanium chip. SGI died trying to pull off a migration to Intel. AMD tried to transition their server workloads to ARM and completely failed. CPU transitions are more likely to kill you than not. These are not insurmountable odds(after all Apple has done this twice) but it's risky and there may be no need to make this transition, even if Intel has lost their mojo.

The reason here is that it appears that x86 processors look to be suddenly competitive again thanks to AMD’s new “Zen” architecture and Ryzen chips . According to AMD these chips will outperform Intel's chips and at 1/2 to 1/3rd the cost. Ryzen’s top of the line R7-1700x offers performance better then any chip you can get in a Mac today instead going at it with the $1000 Intel 6900k. This is enabled by a massive improvement in instructions per clock (IPC) compared to the previous generation of AMD chips and significantly better multi-core tech. In cinebench for example, the Ryzen is almost 40% faster then the Intel competitor.

Assuming AMD isn't fibbing, what does this mean for Apple? Apple’s x86 transition corresponded with the rise of the Conroe. Apple has never gotten any of the advantages of competition in the CPU market. If the numbers and benchmarks are right, not only has AMD become competitive, Intel will be on their back foot a while. Ryzen might be much better in the exact scenarios that Apple hardware sells well in - multi-threaded computation and audio and visual processing. Ryzen is a clean room design, which not only delivers vastly better price/performance, but also theoretically has a lot of head-room to compete with anything Intel comes up with in the short term. That is unless intel drastically cuts their prices (which is still great for Apple).

So what about Apple lveraging Ryzen as well as Kaby Lake? There are some problems, but I would argue vastly less then going down the ARM path.

The first (and most obvious) is that AMD is initially targeting the enthusiast space for these chips. There are no laptop capable chips yet - that comes this summer with the ryzen APUs.. AMD is promising a similar quantum leap in the graphics space with their VEGA architecture for graphics, but it’s unknown if this will deliver the performance that the systems need.

So while we wait on laptops, what about the Pro, mini and iMac? Thanks to x86 compatability, most issues are fairly simple. One big exception is Thunderbolt 3. None of the newly released chipsets support Thunderbolt 3. AMD or Apple would have to license Thunderbolt 3 from Intel. The good news is that AMD and Intel have a good cross-technology license already place. These Thunderbolt 3 connections require PCI-e lanes. In general while the Ryzen CPU’s have more lanes then the Intel competitors (24 versus 16), the chipsets on the top of line models have less lanes - the X3720 has a total of 32 lanes compared to the 16 lanes on the MacBook Pro Quads and 12 lanes on the MacBook, but short of the 40 that the Kaby Lake + desktop chipset offers. I don’t think this is a issue in the laptops, iMac or a hypothetical iMac Pro, but may be a issue in a future successor to the trashcan Mac Pro. It’s obviously suitable for a Mac Mini if apple ever decides to build one again. In addition, Ryzen also supports ECC ram and high speed DDR4 memory. All pluses.

So what about the MacBook pro. The Macbook Pro's value prop has always been a insane amount of CPU to throw at problems and make them disappear. The Intel chips that are in the pro are laughably out of date now, and the mainline intel chips don't support features that Apple users demand - like ECC ram. AMD may have a answer for this, this summer AMD will release a 32-core beast called Naples.. If AMD applies similar pricing to this vis a vis Xeon, the value proposition may be overwhelming. Can you imagine a mac with 32 CPUs? If you really want to get back to the world where the Mac Pro is unquestionably the most powerful machine you can buy in the PC verse, that pretty much would do it.

One last interesting note is that AMD is apparently also taking a page out of ARM's book, and licensing their CPU designs. Want a Apple designed chip with all of the Apple IP pre-baked in, without forcing a migration? That may be a option.

Assuming the benchmarks are true this sure looks like a better alternative for Apple then the ARM path. Increased competition in the x86 space will hopefully bring back a renaissance in CPU design, when both AMD and Intel benefited from the introduction of 64 bit technology and high-speed low cost multi-core chips, which pretty-much killed all of the x86 competitors - the Sparcs, the Itaniums, PA-RISC, etc. Even if Apple didn’t embrace Zen, and Intel found a way to right the ship, I suspect ARM on the desktop would be sooner or later be killed by a resurgent X86 platform. If Zen is what it appears to be, the last place Apple should go is ARM on the desktop.

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Well Played Google


Well Played Google

Today’s Internet is mostly funded by advertising. But what if there were a way to directly support the people who create the sites you visit each day?


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Safari is not IE, But the web is not Flash. Apple's evergreen problem.

There has been considerable controversy over a recent article slamming Apple's recent activity around Safari, with the usual heavy hitters in the Apple community disagreeing. Unfortunately the responses (and to be fair the original article) have focused completely on what Apple focuses completely on - the mobile market, with commenters on both sides positing that technologies are not being adopted because Apple just doesn't want technologies that enable web apps to compete with native apps and that this is just another iteration of the apple/flash wars.

 I don't think it really has much to do with mobile at all. Let me propose a alternative theory:

The last time I sat in a executive meeting at my company, the entire executive team (with only a single exception) were using Macbook Pros. Apple's dominance in the enterprise world is a under-reported facet of their renaissance.  This certainly isn't because Outlook and Office is better on the mac then on the PC, and it's not due to the success of the App Store. It's because Apple can do anything on the web that anyone else can do, with better hardware and OS to boot. It's on the web that enterprisey, unsexy apps exist that enable the 91% percent of people who don't work at a startup to do business.

Apple invests in having their own browser platform because it's not about running Facebook as a web page instead of a mobile app. It's that it allows apple to provide the time management system, the sales portal page, and cloud computing front ends. 

It seems to me that there is a huge discrepancy between how the consumer and mobile focused apple community is perceiving the web and how it is actually evolving:

Yep. We live in a world where we build very very large complex JavaScript applications that do all sorts of enterprisey things and leverage complex APIs. Technologies like Angular and React, and features such as Web Components, WebRTC, ShadowDOM, IndexDB and ServiceWorkers  are key to allowing developers to write the next generation unsexy enterprise apps. These applications probably will never have a native apps. The cost of fragmenting the application is simply too high to justify the value of a application. 

The problem is that at current trajectories, it will become harder and harder to write these apps on safari and expose them on iPad and iPhone. Right now, Apple is at 53% coverage of the newest Javascript APIs, easily the lowest of everything except Opera Mini and tied for IE.  What's worse is that the web is evolving faster and faster; fueled by the evergreen policies of Firefox, Chrome and soon Edge.  When Edge ships, Microsoft will get a 12% bump between IE 11 and Edge. Between Chrome 36 and current, Chrome will have improved by 16% of API coverage. Firefox will have improved 12% in that same period.

Since 2013, Apple will have improved 8%.

I believe that apple is committed to the web. They can't afford not to be. This even includes technologies that could have a ramification to their native strategy like web-assembly.  I think it's the inability to execute at the same scale and speed of evolution that the evergreen browsers are executing at fault here. Judging by the universal standards of the web, Apple is forcing a multi-year refresh cycle to get access to standard features. 

Apple's features around browsers and things like power consumption and JIT are great for the end user. They make things feel snappy. But every investment comes at a cost, and the cost here has been that Apple is simply not staying current with some very important web technologies. It doesn't hurt apple today, but over the long run, it may make it possible for someone to Firefox them.

The good news here is that there are a lot of options. With all that money trapped in Ireland, nothings to keep Apple from hiring some very good European programmers to start adding features to Safari. If that's not a option, why not let someone Firefox them? Allow Chrome and Firefox a spot on the phone just like the desktop. The web wins, and apple wins.

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