Cycles in Sync: Apple and Microsoft to refresh simultaneously


Finally, they've got their cycles in sync. Microsoft and Apple are both refreshing major hardware at the same time. In May 2018, Apple, Microsoft and major Microsoft OEMs are all due to release new products. We look at the reason why the stars have aligned.

Cycles in Sync

We've been living with different development cycles for decades. Microsoft releases new products at the opposite time to when Apple releases its new products.

Why have their cycles aligned? Like best friends who mimic each others behaviour, Apple and Microsoft are both dependant on Intel.

While Intel has previously split is workforce, with one team working with Apple and another team working with Microsoft, and each sharing internal resources at Intel, the best use of Intel's production lines was to bake chips for Microsoft now, and Apple later, keeping lines busy all year.

So what changed?

Intel

In 2015, Intel began working with AMD, in secret, to develop its co-branded graphics solution. Why? Simply because Intel's own graphics solution sucked, and both Apple and Microsoft would prefer it not to suck.

Apple chose to buy processors from Intel and graphics hardware from AMD. Intel looked over its shoulder, in 2015, and realised the potential for Intel and AMD to co-develop a product that they could sell to Apple, potentially using AMD to encourage Apple to buy more from Intel.

Similarly, Microsoft was pushing Intel to develop faster, better, more power-efficient chips, with integrated graphics, to realise its vision of thin and powerful laptops and Windows tablets. There was a meeting in a board room somewhere inside Intel, and they jumped on the Intel-AMD bandwagon. Intel now had a way to keep Microsoft buying chips.

Moreover, there was a small storm brewing.

Microsoft had started working with Qualcomm on ARM chips for laptops, tablets, and phones. Apple was also relying on Qualcomm for cellular modem chips for the IPhone. Apple had bought a number of chip companies, and was potentially developing their own chips for the MacBook and iMac.

Microsoft could dump Intel and go with Qualcomm.

Apple could dump Intel and go with AMD or its own Apple-designed chips.

Apple

Throughout 2015, 2016, and 2017, Apple had been quietly buying small and medium chip designers, manufacturers, and had been developing their own processors for the MacBook and iMac. Apple already designs its own processors for the iPhone and iPad.

Apple bought PrimeSense, the company Microsoft worked with to develop the Kinect camera.

Kinect quietly died.

Apple announced that it would stop using chips and designs from its supplier Imagination, a UK-based graphics part designer. Apple then bought a number of small competing companies, and essentially bought itself a team capable of doing what it was paying Imagination for.

Furthermore, Apple continued to work with AMD on GPUs for the Mac Pro, iMac, MacBook, MacBook Pro, and iMac Pro.

In early 2018, Apple broke its cosy relationship with Qualcomm, when a previously-quiet internal dispute suddenly turned both public and ugly. The lawyers were called in, and Apple unceremoniously sued Qualcomm, withheld payments and royalties, and instructed its suppliers to withhold payments from Qualcomm as well. This put Qualcomm in a $1-billion hole, immediately, and suspended future income of up to $2-billion.

Microsoft

Meanwhile, Microsoft had been working with Qualcomm to develop ARM chips for laptops and Windows tablets, a project which gained both importance and urgency, after Apple left Qualcomm without a major source of income.

Thankfully, Microsoft and Qualcomm were nearing the end of their project, and it was ready to be deployed, generating sales for Qualcomm. Microsoft debuted a prototype of a Qualcomm-based product in January 2018, and real products from Microsoft's partners began appearing in March 2018. This means that Qualcomm had finalised its designs, sent them to manufacturing, delivered them to customers, and they had been integrated into products by March, meaning that Qualcomm had made sales to Microsoft and Microsoft OEMs.

Microsoft OEMs

Microsoft OEMs, the original equipment manufacturers, launched these products with Microsoft's preferred branding: the Always Connected PC. These laptops and tablets were slated to use ARM processors (not Intel) and Qualcomm modems, and a lightweight operating system. They were destined to be a step up from a cell phone and a step-down from a full powered laptop.

Aimed at school children, university students, light home users, the budget-conscious, and those without the need for a Pro computer, they were the perfect compromise. An affordable, efficient, quality product, with Wifi, Bluetooth, LTE, and most importantly, long battery life.

Bringing it back to Intel

So Intel had a problem: Apple was preparing to step away from Intel, and Microsoft was preparing to step away from Intel, and Intel needed a solution.

Intel found one solution: teaming up with AMD to co-create Intel processors with AMD graphics, and sell them to Apple and to Microsoft OEMs, tying both of them in to deals with Intel.

Intel found another solution: Intel could capitalise on Apple pulling away from Qualcomm by selling more modems to Apple. The problem was, Intel's modems weren't as good as Qualcomm's. So Intel needed a quick fix for its modem problem.

In 2017, Intel realised it needed to solve these problems, and solve them quickly.

So, in 2017, Intel's chip plans changed, and no-one could figure out why.

In 2018, the muddied waters became clearer, when Intel announced very powerful and low-power-hungry new chips in its Core i5 and Core i7 range, and surprised everyone with a brand new Core i9 series.

Furthermore, Intel unveiled its collaboration with AMD and announced the direct integration of AMD graphics on the same silicon as Intel processors, connected by a direct bus. Hell had not frozen over, but it was certainly chilly there for a while, as everyone settled in to the new Iceland of Core i chips.

So with Apple, Microsoft, and Microsoft OEMs all relying on Intel, Intel knew it had to pull a rabbit out of the hat or lose all of those customers. It managed its abracadabra moment in early 2018, and set the wheels in motion, behind the scenes, in March, for a May release.

May 2018

Why have Apple and Microsoft's cycles suddenly aligned in May 2018?

Simply because they are both reliant on Intel, and it took Intel nearly three years to make it happen. In 2015, Intel knew it had problems. From 2016 to 2018, Intel worked to solve those problems.

Now as we exit April and enter May 2018, Intel is ready to sit back and count its money, while Apple and Microsoft, along with Microsoft's OEMs, buy products from Intel and release new devices.

April 2018

Much of April has been spent getting new products ready behind the scenes, while in the foreground retailers are having sales to sell-off what will soon be obsolete inventory.

Around Australia, Europe, the United States, and Canada, Apple products are being sold at 10% to 15% off at major retailers. Windows PCs and laptops are being sold with deep discounts, from 10% to 30%, and in some cases are $300 to $500 off the normal retail price.

Apple only allows these discounts in the lead up to a new product being released.

Microsoft will have sales at retailers from time to time, and at other times on its own online store. Sometimes this is to clear stale inventory, and sometimes to clear more current inventory in the lead up to a new product announcement.

Cycles in Sync

So why have the cycles aligned?

Simply because Apple, Microsoft, and Microsoft OEMs are all dependent on Intel right now, and Intel had nothing truly new to release until now. It took Intel three years to break its current tick-tick-tock cycle, and give us the breakthrough new chips that its customers wanted, to power a new range of devices... ultimately to coax money out of consumers pockets.

Everyone was waiting on Intel, and Intel finally got its game in order.

Until next time,

Xavier Zymantas

XYZtech

XYZ Media Group

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