Why Apple Made Their Own CPU

Unlike any other manufactures, Apple makes both the software and the hardware. Why would Apple venture in something that is very technically challenging and have a high upfront cost like the CPU? Posted by erwinkarim on 11:39 AM, January 15, 2021 Last updated on 2:20 PM, January 20, 2021 Filed in: cpu, apple,

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This is a very interesting question because making your own CPU and other chip is a very tough endeavor hence why there is no mass-produced PC maker does this. But Apple is not like other PC maker. “Think Different” and “Here’s to the crazy ones” was not just a marketing slogan, it is Steve Jobs (the founder of Apple Incorporate) fundamental approach to living and making a dent in the universe.

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To understand why would Apple want to make their own processor, you have to understand how other PC-makers works. This is my own experience of 10+ years working in IT department from tiny company to multi-national enterprise. The scale is different, but the objective is the same.

For the masses, the computer is where they do the work or play the games. Most of the time, it’s for work and doing work is basically running Microsoft Office. I can tell you even in large companies, how entire departments and subsidiaries are run just using 4 apps, Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook. How did this happened? Microsoft basically won the PC wars way back in the 80s and been king of the hill ever since.

ibm pc
Microsoft won the PC wars with IBM clones running MS-DOS and later cemented their position with Windows.

Microsoft is built on Intel because that is what they have to play with during the late 70s and early 80s. Back then, there was a lot of UNIX vendors that does end-to-end stuff like HP with their HP-UX, Sun with their Solaris, and IBM with their AIX. Microsoft only play was software and they got a lucky brake when IBM wanted to build their PC and it was built on Intel. Microsoft manage to license and own DOS and basically corner the PC market. DOS becomes Windows and as Microsoft grew, so does Intel.

pc manufactures logos
All these PC manufactures uses Intel because everyone uses Microsoft for work and play. And cost of entry with your own solution is very, very high. Apple at least have office on the Mac. Others don’t

So the network effect dictates how 3rd party PC maker build their business. Everyone is using Windows so the cost of entry by making your own OS is high. Microsoft uses Intel so unless you can convince Microsoft to use an alternative CPU, better stick with Intel. AMD is always a niche player and don’t have the production muscle like Intel does. In the end, Dell, HP, IBM (later lenovo), Compaq (later HP), Gateway 2000 (dead) and others just build Intel PC w/ Microsoft Inside (tm).

Enter the iPhone

Apple on the other hand, after lost the PC wars got their butts handed over by series of mismanagement, bad products until the return of Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs know, while there are Apple cult memb…, I mean fans, it won’t be enough to grow or sustain Apple in the long run. Apple has to create their own new product and grow from there.

first generation ipod
What bring the first round of dough for Apple: the iPod. Other lessons learn here is the iPod uses ARM, which paved the way for the iPhone.

So after updating their Macs, they launched the first product that bring in the dough: the iPod. A revolutionary music player that have 1000 songs in your pocket. What’s important about this iPod is that is has an ARM chip that run things. So they are more familiar with ARM. So after the success of the iPod, Apple launched another product that basically changed the game and fortunes for Apple: the iPhone.

The iPhone taught Apple two things, the iPhone will make Apple rich beyond their wildest dreams and to make the iPhone compelling, they have to introduce features that only Apple can have. And to eventually have product features that exclusive to you, you have to design everything from the ground up. You cannot rely on anybody to make the CPU anymore. In the early days of iPhone, Apple actually asked Intel if Intel can make a powerful low power CPU for the iPhone, Intel declined the offer thinking there’s no money in making chips for phones.

steve jobs with the first generation ipad
First Apple designed chip was the A4, which was a licensed copy of the Cortex A4 chip but with some Apple modifications. You can think this is a concept validation on making their own chips.

So Apple has a feature sets that they want to implement: Touch ID, Face ID, 4K video processing and playback. HDR, computation photography, neural processing for ML and AR, secure enclave and others. To make all of this work, Apple would need to create their own processor to actually do it since the processor they need is not on the market. So, the A4 chip is born and later Apple build everything from scratch on the A6.

iphone 5s
The A6 in the iPhone 5 is the first chip that Apple designed from the ground up. From here, added more and more features like Touch ID in the 5s, Neural cores, graphic cores and Apple Fabric to do I/O.

a14 feature sets
A14 Features. All this is only possible because Apple designed the A-series from the ground up starting from the A6. They don’t have to wait for a 3rd party like Intel or Qualcomm to do it.

Lessons of the A-series vs the Mac

Over the years, the A-series has exploded Apple capabilities and bottom line. The A-series enable more and more feature sets on the iPhone and iPad and derivaties has enable Apple to create new products like the Apple Watch, AirPods, HomePods and Apple TV. Meanwhile, the Macs feature set has been stagnated. Some say Apple has basically abandon the Mac lineup in favor of iPhone but that is partly true. There only so much Apple can do with Intel in the Mac that they had to create a co-processor such as the T-series to add more features. Touch ID and on the fly storage encryption would not be possible without the T-series chip.

t2 chip
The T2 co-processor was introduced because Intel chip does not have the capabilities that Apple want like Touch ID or real-time disk encryption. Later T2 evolved into M1 which replace Intel altogether.

Another lesson that the A-series has taught Apple it is very possible to create powerful chip that uses low power consumption and have custom feature set with a price to match. Although Apple does not publish their prices for A-series or M-series chip, just looking at the logic board of MacBook Air in M1 vs Intel you can gouge the cost saving Apple gets by moving to the M1.

macbook air intel and macbook air m1 teardown
MacBook Air 2020. Intel on the left, M1 on the right. Not only M1 logic board is much more simpler, it is more powerful too, produce less heat and on can infer it costs less too.


Apple make their own chips because Apple has a grand vision on how their products will look like, perform and work. To achieve such vision, Apple has to create their own chip because what they wanted is not on the market. In the end, their own chip provided the unique differentiator and the performance that they need.


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