M1 Macs: The opportunities Apple seized and sacrificed

For Apple, Job 1 in the M1 transition was to prove out the case for switching with minimal disruption. But the company stopped short on capitalizing on some Arm benefits pursued by Microsoft and Qualcomm.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

Apple's launch of its M1 Macs represents the third and likely final (at least to a party other than Apple) transition. Long before the company's WWDC keynote in which it revealed the switch to its own silicon for the computer line that predates millions of its users, the company was not shy about dropping hints at how favorably the latest A-series in its laptop-like iPad stacked up to PC laptops.

While the shift was no doubt in the works for a long time, completing the move to get all of Apple's devices on the same core processor architecture it's still telling that Apple was content to wait for two years from the introduction of the first Qualcomm-powered PCs to debut the new Macs, a rough milestone for determining the feasibility of running a mainstream desktop OS on an Arm processor.

Apple had plenty of incentive to wait. Unlike in the Windows market, where Qualcomm-based PCs were positioned as a subsegment of the ultramobile category, Apple has fully cast the Mac's lot on the M1. It's not as if many users will want to turn back. The new Macs scream on M1-native software and, via Rosetta 2, run the existing catalog more than adequately -- all while providing battery life unheard of on the Mac.

Yes, there are some limitations out of the gate; these will likely be addressed as Apple introduces M1-based versions of its more professionally-oriented computers greeted by an ever-growing wave of professional applications optimized for Apple's new Mac processor family. But the fad-averse company focused on addressing customer needs by tackling the fundamental tradeoff in a notebook -- performance and battery life.

First, Apple can be faulted for not rolling out any enticing new form factors along with its new chip. But, as noted, the M-series processors will become the SoCs for all Macs, not just a segment of them. Some of these computers will even include -- gasp -- fans! So, it's not too surprising that Apple passed on a new form factor. After all, with its aversion to putting touch screens on Macs, the 2-in-1s that have led the charge in Qualcomm-based PCs are essentially irrelevant to Mac users. A big part of why that's the case is because of Apple's market-leading "2-in-1": The iPad.

Besides, while the development of the M1 can be held up as proof of Apple's commitment to the Mac's future, much of what went into the development of its blistering performance (needed to run the most demanding apps among its platforms as well as ensure satisfactory Rosetta performance) is sure to trickle down to the A-series and the devices it powers. Apple continues to point to the iPad as the future of computing, and the form factors that it has on the drawing board surely represent a more radical departure from the clamshell than a detachable keyboard.

Second, Apple also passed on an opportunity to dip the MacBook Air much below $1,000. Of course, with the performance that it is providing with the M1, there is no compelling reason for it to lower prices based on value delivered. However, the restraint was still somewhat surprising given that Apple now has baseline or SE versions of the iPad, iPhone, and Apple watch priced well under $400. Apple's holding firm on the MacBook Air's price means that the iPad remains the company's value leader in terms of traditional (and a few not-so-traditional) computing tasks as well as its sole entrant in the $500 to $800 mainstream midrange segment.

But I wouldn't dismiss the idea of Apple going more aggressively after lower-priced Windows notebooks with the reborn Mac. Indeed, it may be waiting until broader app support gels, at which point it could either drop the price of the fourth-gen MacBook Air or introduce a MacBook SE (which would not be the first Mac SE). 

Finally, unlike the Microsoft-Qualcomm approach that made cellular connectivity a bedrock of the "Always Connected PC," Apple continues to treat cellular modems as an intrusion into the Mac's proposition as unwelcome as touch screens, even after the 5G socially distant celebration at the iPhone event ushering the flagship phone into the post-LTE era. We'll know for sure whether this is a philosophical or cost/licensing issue once Apple is finally producing its own 5G modems. At that point, the network rollouts will have advanced significantly and Mac users should again by spending more time away from home, if not a Wi-Fi hotspot.

If Apple Silicon Macs move forward in the similarly priced boxes in which they've debuted, the revolutionary shifts that Apple has portended with the M1 will be left to software. We have only started to see the beginnings of this with breakthrough performance in Pixelmator Pro and the AI algorithms powering the FaceTime camera in the new MacBooks. These kinds of functional changes would put more distance between the Mac and Windows PCs, but of course, Microsoft and Qualcomm won't be standing still, either.


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With Microsoft fixing many problems that doomed Windows RT, the newcomer to the PC space has an opportunity to become synonymous with incredible battery life on laptops. But it won't be the only always-connected player for long.

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