I Think I've Seen This Film M4

If you squint, you can see a path to an M4 iPad to boost Apple's AI narrative leading up to WWDC...
I Think I've Seen This Film M4

Gotta love a good old-fashioned Apple rumor blog fight.

A couple weeks ago, Mark Gurman reported that Apple was preparing to launch its M4 chip later this year. To which John Gruber replied, basically, "no shit, Sherlock." This would be Apple just getting onto the yearly cadence with their M series chips just as with their A series chips (in the iPhone) on which they're based. The M3 was unveiled at last October's "Scary Fast" event, therefore...

But wait! Not so fast, says Gurman – or actually, perhaps so fast – in his latest Power On newsletter this weekend:

The new iPad Pro will kick off Apple’s shift into AI hardware. Earlier this month, I broke the news that Apple is accelerating its computer processor upgrades and plans to release the M4 chip later this year alongside new iMacs, MacBook Pros and Mac minis. The big change with the M4: A new neural engine will pave the way for fresh AI capabilities. Now here’s another development. This year’s Macs may not be the only AI-driven devices with M4 chips.

I’m hearing there is a strong possibility that the chip in the new iPad Pro will be the M4, not the M3. Better yet, I believe Apple will position the tablet as its first truly AI-powered device — and that it will tout each new product from then on as an AI device. This, of course, is all in response to the AI craze that has swept the tech industry over the last couple years.

That, unquestionably, would be big news. Not only the release of the M4 just six months after the M3, but bringing it to the iPad Pro first. In poker terms, this was a raise by Gurman, followed by a call from Gruber, and now Gurman going all-in.1 And now Gruber wants to see the cards:

M4 iPads next week feel about as realistic as those flat-sided Series 7 Apple Watches that Gurman reported three years ago. So I’d bet money against this. In some sense it’s a can’t-lose bet — either I’m right and these iPad Pros will have M3 chips, or Apple’s silicon game is racing far ahead of what I considered possible, which would be rather amazing. Am I nuts or is no one else even skeptical about this?

A couple things come to mind here, and both involve the iPad:

  • In March 2012, Apple released the third-generation iPad and then they surprised/angered everyone by announcing the fourth-generation iPad in October 2012 – just seven months later.
  • In April 2021, Apple released an iPad Pro with the M1 chip. Up until this point, Apple had used the iPhone A series chips for the iPad as well. The M1 was thought to be Mac-only. Surprise! Not anymore.

So yes, Apple does occasionally still surprise, and when they do, it's sometimes with the iPad. I would also just add that Apple is clearly under pressure to ramp their AI narrative. And while the software at WWDC will be a key part of that, being able to talk about AI-focused hardware would also undoubtedly help Apple and leverage their advantage in owning the whole hardware/software stack.

Owning this narrative is even more critical now with Microsoft on the verge of touting 'Windows AI' seemingly in partnership with Qualcomm – coming right after the M series chips. And undoubtedly Google will have something to talk about on these fronts in a few weeks at Google I/O. Apple famously ships things when they're ready, but they're also not above shifting such states of readiness.

All that is to say, I don't think it's totally insane to think Apple could push an M4 chip out the door so soon after the M3.2 The fact that Apple hasn't updated the iPad lineup in so long may also lend weight to this move. It's perhaps not probable, but entirely possible that Apple was going to release M3-powered iPads earlier this year but knew they were closing in on the M4 and so they decided to delay. And now this truly can be "The Year of the iPad" or whatnot.

Such a move would help the iPad, but it would really help the AI narrative for Apple. Even if it's mainly for marketing purposes. In this scenario, they wouldn't have to wait until the fall to tout any M4 AI capabilities. And while they could certainly wait until WWDC to talk about new chips, that's predominantly a software event (though they obviously announce hardware here as well some years, and perhaps will this year as well). And again, perhaps the aim is simply to get ahead of rivals' events.

One more thing: what if this M4 isn't a full-throated chip update as we might normally expect a year later, but some variant, almost like a souped-up M3? (An "M3X", as it were?) Maybe with a new neural component for AI specifically? Conversely, some may recall that the A17 chips, the first 3nm chips inside the iPhones 15 Pro were built using a slightly different process (N3) than what later 3nm chips were expected to use ('N3E' or 'N3P'?). What if this M4 processor is really just that issue rectified?

This is just pure speculation, of course – just throwing ideas out there for how Apple could do this without screwing up their normal chip unveil/release cadence. Or maybe they just don't care about that anymore. Or maybe they just care far more about the AI perception here. Or maybe we'll simply get an M3-powered iPad Pro...

To be clear, I have no sources on any of this. Just trying to use my brain and attempting to mediate between my two Apple pundit friends playing poker.

A paid tier for Spyglass: The Inner Ring...

1 To be fair, Gurman does couch his statement a bit with "strong possibility" -- but "strong" will undoubtedly negate "possibility" for many.

2 And unlike 2012, Apple wouldn't be pissing off recent iPad buyers because again the line is so long in the tooth right now and in need of an upgrade -- a bigger one would be welcomed!