Changing System Architectures And The Complexities Of Apple’s Butterfly Approach To ISAs

Apple computers will be moving away from Intel chips to its own ARM-based design. An interesting thing about Apple as a company is that it has never felt the need to tie itself to a particular system architecture or ISA. Whereas a company like Microsoft mostly tied its fortunes to Intel’s x86 architecture, and IBM, Sun, HP and other giants preferred vertical integration, Apple is currently moving towards its fifth system architecture for its computers since the company was formed.

What makes this latest change possibly unique, however, is that instead of Apple relying on an external supplier for CPUs and peripheral ICs, they are now targeting a vertical integration approach. Although the ARM ISA is licensed to Apple by Arm Holdings, the ‘Apple Silicon’ design that is used in Apple’s ARM processors is their own, produced by Apple’s own engineers and produced by foundries at the behest of Apple.

In this article I would like to take a look back at Apple’s architectural decisions over the decades and how they made Apple’s move towards vertical integration practically a certainty.

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Cheese Grater Now Grates Cheese

If you’ve been using Apple products since before they were cool, you might remember the Power Mac G5. This was a time before Apple was using Intel processors, so compatibility issues were high and Apple’s number of users was pretty low. They were still popular in some areas but didn’t have the wide appeal they have now. The high quality of the drilled aluminum design lived on into the Intel era and gained more popularity, but the case was still colloquially known as the “Cheese Grater”. Despite not originally being able to grate cheese though, this Power Mac actually does grate cheese.

Ungrated cheese is placed in the CD drive slot where it passes through a series of 3D printed gears which grate the cheese into small chunks. The cheese grating drive is automatically started when it detects cheese via a Raspberry Pi. The Pi 4 also functions as a working desktop computer within the old G5 case, complete with custom-built I/O ports for HDMI that integrate with the case to make it look like original hardware.

Funnily enough, the Pi 4 has more computing power and memory than Apple’s flagship Mac at the time, and consumes about 100 times less power. It’s a functional build that elaborates on an in-joke in the hardware community, which we can all appreciate. Perhaps the next build should be something that uses the blue smoke for a productive purpose. Meanwhile, regular readers will remember that this isn’t the first Apple related cheese grating episode we’ve shown you.

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