On Tuesday, Apple rolled out a handful of products, including an updated iPad, a new iPad mini, the Apple Watch Series 7, and the iPhone 13 series. As has become the norm during the pandemic, the rollout came nicely packaged in a 78-minute virtual presentation that hit all of the highlights for each of the products.
If you were looking forward to a new iPhone, especially, Apple had plenty to say about its battery life, and screen, and cameras. What Apple didn't say, however, is far more interesting to me.
To be clear, there's a lot Apple didn't say. There are products that people were expecting that didn't get announced. There's also the App Store, which Apple didn't mention at all.
The latter isn't much of a surprise considering the current scrutiny the company is facing over the control it exerts on developers. What is surprising is how the company talked (or didn't) about its pride and joy--its processors.
The new iPhones are powered by the A15, which you might expect would be an improvement over the A14. Except we don't really know much about how it will perform, because Apple isn't touting its performance. At least, not compared with that of the A14, it isn't.
That seems strange when you look at how Apple talked about its processors last year. I did just that, rewatching every Apple product announcement from last year, including WWDC. The differences might seem subtle, but they could actually say a lot about what comes next.
Last year was what I think anyone who has been paying attention would call "the year of Apple Silicon." Despite a global pandemic and chip shortage, the company rolled out the A14, which it called at the time the "fastest chip ever in a smartphone,"
"Frankly, the competition is still playing catchup to our chips--not just from last year, but even from two years ago," said Kaiann Drance, Apple's VP of iPhone product marketing during the 2020 iPhone event.
Every device Apple announced since the middle of last year had a brand-new custom-designed processor that blew the previous version out of the water. The A14, Apple said, was capable of "challenging the performance of laptops."
That was true. Benchmarks showed that the A14 was faster than most laptops. That was a good thing, since the M1 processor is based on the same core architecture. That chip put its Intel and AMD competition to shame. You can now buy a sub-$1,000 MacBook Air that is faster and has longer battery life than just about any other laptop you can buy today.
Apple compared the A15 with the "leading competitor," saying it was "up to 50 percent faster." That's exactly how it described the A14 last year--it was 50 percent faster than any other mobile processor.
Besides, if the A14 is the fastest mobile processor, isn't it technically "the leading competitor"? I suspect the company meant the leading chip in an Android device--probably the Snapdragon 865 series. Again, the A14 was already 50 percent faster than that chip.
It invites the question: Is an iPhone 13 with an A15 going to represent a significant increase in performance over last year's models? The answer is sort of, but not really.
Leaked benchmarks (probably from review units) reveal that single-core performance on the A15 clocks in around 10 percent faster than the A14 using Geekbench. Multicore performance is slightly better, at 21 percent. That's not nothing, but it's also not close to the kind of generational leap we've seen in the past.
Then, there's the fact that Apple didn't even mention the processor in the Apple Watch Series 7. I asked, but Apple didn't have anything more to say about what is powering its new flagship wearable. That means it's not clear whether that device is getting a new processor at all.
Why does it matter? Because Apple Silicon has become one of the company's strongest differentiators. More important, the A15 isn't a chip just for smartphones. It also now powers the iPad mini, and the next Apple Silicon for the Mac will almost certainly use the same core architecture.
That means that the performance of the A15 says a lot more about whether Apple can continue to advance its chip designs, or whether it made a huge leap last year, only to wring out smaller, incremental changes moving forward.
That's a big deal, and not because the A15 isn't powerful enough for the iPhone. I'm sure it is. It's a big deal because the A15 is likely the foundation for whatever comes after the M1, the chip powering the newest Macs and the iPad Pro.
Last year, it was clear that Apple was raising expectations. There were even concerns that it might have raised them too high, leaving people to be let down if it couldn't deliver. This year, the opposite seems to be the case.
Apple is most definitely not trying to raise expectations for the A15 or, later, the M2. The problem is, if Apple feels like it has to keep expectations at a reasonable level, what does that say about its chip roadmap?
One of the challenges of making the kind of massive leap in performance and efficiency that the M1 chip brought to the Mac and the iPad Pro is that it makes it a lot harder to continue that trajectory. That's true of every form of success, really. The more you grow, the harder it is to maintain that pace.
The thing is, in Apple's case, it has had a massive advantage over all of its competition because of its ability to seemingly do what its competition couldn't. It's just not clear if that's still the case.