Apple ditching Intel for ARM on the Mac? Stop the insanity!

Apple ditching Intel for ARM on the Mac? Stop the insanity!

Summary: According to recent reports by Bloomberg and other sites, Apple is looking to switch from Intel to ARM processors for Macs. These stories misread the standard jockeying between technology suppliers and customers in the industry.

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A recent Bloomberg story reports that Apple engineers expect that its ARM-based A-series processors will be able to run OS X applications in the future and they are planning to shift the Mac platform to ARM.

While Apple is now committed to Intel in computers and is unlikely to switch in the next few years, some engineers say a shift to its own designs is inevitable as the features of mobile devices and PCs become more similar, two people said. Any change would be a blow to Intel, the world’s largest processor maker, which has already been hurt by a stagnating market for computers running Microsoft Corp. (MSFT)’s Windows software and its failure to gain a foothold in mobile gadgets. A move by Apple may lead others to follow suit.

The story then goes on to discuss a bit of history around Apple's adoption of Intel processors and Apple's recently announced Technologies division, which will include Cupertino's chip development groups. Apple said that it has big plans for chips.

Bob Mansfield will lead a new group, Technologies, which combines all of Apple’s wireless teams across the company in one organization, fostering innovation in this area at an even higher level. This organization will also include the semiconductor teams, who have ambitious plans for the future.

Some follow-along stories call this change "inevitable." However, my guess would be that this rumor may may well have been planted in the business media by Apple. The reason is all about Apple's current negotiations with Intel. The issue is competition, or more to the point, the lack of it.

With the frequent cuts and rounds of restructuring at AMD, there's no credible performance alternative for Mac processor designs other than ARM. Apple, just like all the other PC makers in the world now have little leverage with Intel on pricing. Of course, AMD could change that picture over time as its latest designs mature, but not now, which is what counts.

There is talk about Apple wanting lower-power processors for Macs as the driver for this future change to ARM. This may be so, even though Mac users primarily want performance and secondarily, battery life or power consumption. It's a bewildering part of the thesis to me: Intel has plenty of engineers and manufacturing technology that could be put to work on making a slower, low-power processor.

What Apple really wants is a price break.

So does Intel. The issue for Intel is likely all about margins — the company doesn't want to lower its gross margins. Intel could no doubt make its chips score better on power consumption, simply by lowering their performance. However, Intel wouldn't be able to charge as much for these chips (hint: performance is more the driver for price than power consumption).

Certainly, the best ARM processors next year and even through 2014 can't come close to providing the performance necessary for MacBook Air-class laptops. Still, perhaps in a few years Apple might be able to have ARM-based processors good enough for a MacBook.

So, my read of this rumor is that Apple is heading soon into negotiations with Intel and will be giving them a warning: make the lower-power and more importantly, lower-cost processors we want, or Apple will phase out Intel. And they can point to the stories!

Still, this threat is blunted by Apple's existing desktop strategy. Part of Apple's value proposition for its Intel-based Macs are their multiplatform capabilities: Macs are the only machines in the world that can natively run OS X, Windows and Linux. This is an important consideration by any enterprise or business user of the Mac and it will continue to be so. This is dependent on the Intel logic.

Developers are now offering Mac versions of Windows apps, only some of which are developed with Apple's IDE or with a cross-platform IDE. A number are using WINE wrappers. If a native or ported app isn't available, then Mac users can install Windows in Apple Boot Camp or the Parallels or VMware environments. These apps want an Intel processor, although I have seen virtualized solutions running on iPads (with lackluster performance).

Can Apple transition developers and users to a Mac that only runs Mac apps in a few years? And would customers want it? It's back to the future as we had with PowerPC Macs.

In addition, I was troubled by a significant misreading of history in the Bloomberg story. It is about the transition from the PowerPC architecture to Intel in 2005.

To be sure, no final decision has been made and Apple may opt to continue working with Intel for years to come. For Apple, the risk of turning its back on Intel is a repeat of its situation in 2005, when it had to abandon the PowerPC chips — made by Motorola and IBM — it had used in its Mac line. At the time, its processors had fallen so far behind Intel’s in performance that it decided to team up with the chipmaker. The first Mac models running Intel chips were unveiled in January 2006.

Nonsense. The PowerPC wasn't running so far behind in performance. Or at all. The PowerPC G5 was a smaller, more efficient chip than the 2005 Intel processors. The problem for Apple was the slow progress on mobile versions of the multicore G5 that created dissonance between consumer and professional portable lines.

In 2004, Apple's PowerPC partners had moved slowly on fixing several issues with the highest performance processors at the time. There were simply fewer manufacturing revs available at the chip fabs for the Apple products.

Intel provided Apple with a clear roadmap for power-reduction and plenty of revs in production. Intel had clear lines of processors for pros and consumers. And the shift let the Mac run Windows natively.

And Intel is much more than a chip partner: it offers access to many technology initiatives that Apple could take advantage of, such as the Thunderbolt technology found first on Macs.

At the time, the PowerPC cost less than the new Intel processors that Apple was buying.

These recent stories make the a presumed ARM transition sound logical and inevitable. I recall that on the 2005 weekend before Apple announced its transition to Intel, I wrote an article at eWEEK that boo-booed rumors and said it was logical to continue with PowerPC. So, what do I know? Still, Intel is the safer bet.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Intel, Operating Systems, Processors, ARM

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67 comments
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  • The world is going ARM. Intel is a dead duck.

    Apple will move "Macs" to the ARM processor.

    The current situation of Intel Macs running OS X, Windows and Linux means nothing in the future. Both OS X and Linux will run on ARM. Microsoft Windows is going to become irrelevant, as its ARM offering, called Windows RT (running the Surface tablet) will fail.

    ARM will run on the smallest devices (phones), and when mega-core 64-bit ARM processors come out next year, ARM processors will power the largest server farms, and everything in between.
    Vbitrate
    • nah

      Arm us to far behind in the performance department and wit the absence of 64 bits processors, it won't be on many servers either. I know some people would love to see Windows become irrelevant, one look at the enterprise IT market shows that is not possible for at least a decade or two.
      sjaak327
      • 64-bit is still 2 years away

        I recollect reading an article recently that 64-bit ARM is still 2 years away. Even if Apple were to go to 64-bit ARM, it certainly won't be happening any time soon.
        Wakemewhentrollsgone
        • Won't happen any time soon

          Correct. It might just happen in a year or two. In 2012 Intel are safe.

          But then, the world might just before this Christmas, so why worry? :)
          danbi
          • Even their 64 bit doesn't have the performance.

            Having a 64 bit ARM would allow them into certain server spaces where performance is not as big as the number of cores and low power. No doubt, but there are many work loads on servers and desktops that require much more performance and ARM doesn't have it yet. And as I've said before. Intel can at anytime license ARM again and with their superior manufacturing power aggressively compete with other ARM licensees and foundries.

            And Intel is targetting the low-power many-core arena that these 64 bit chips are designed for. It has a 60 core XEON Phi chip that set a record for performance per watt at the Teraflop level.
            DevGuy_z
      • What?

        "Arm us to far behind"

        That doesn't make any sense.
        Oscar Goldman
        • ARM is too far behind

          It's a typo. U and I are adjacent characters.
          jtdavies
    • Intel has been working and is still working on low power processors

      that have high performance. its a race a race to see who gets a good balance on both. I personally think intel has the upper hand only because its a larger company with more resources.
      slimjim1989
      • Larger company

        Intel may be large company, with very good manufacturing, but their CPU architecture designs have always been mediocre. Not a surprise, why Apple selected 68000 as their architecture for the first Macintosh -- the Intel CPUs at the time were absolute joke.

        History is cyclic, as everyone (should) know.
        danbi
        • History is cyclic

          And ARM was developed as a low cost high performance workstation processor.

          It will be back on workstations soon.

          This time with a worldwide presence.
          Henry 3 Dogg
        • Agreed!

          Intel is a highly capable company
          DevGuy_z
        • That time was long ago. Their technology is by no means mediocre

          They've clobbered AMD. They effectively killed SPARC. Power PC is a niche market now. And they are going after ARM now. They have an x86 based platform that can compete with GPUs: XEON Phi. They're own GPU is at half a teraflop SP. They are continuing to drop their power requirements while raising performance particularly in floating point. And they are pushing the next gen buses and interconnects. How is this mediocre?

          And besides all this they make their stuff cheaper which means more profit. While everyone else has low margins.

          Intel is quite healthy.
          DevGuy_z
    • I think...

      your crystal ball is broken. Or you're just a troll. I'm guessing the latter.
      kstap
    • Why do you bother to even write stuff you know is FUD.

      Just seeing if you can whip up a fight?

      Problem is, it looks like more and more people around here are keying into the pure nonsense of some posts and simply point it out for the plain nonsense it is instead of going the "all sides lose" flame war route, and thats perfect for us but bad for you.
      Cayble
      • did you read my reply to your previous comment

        Regards,

        Me
        dkaparunakis@...
    • The world is going ARM. Intel is a dead duck.

      Those were the headlines 10+ years ago... still waiting.
      nrkmann@...
      • RISC

        Yep, RISC was going to take over the world. Apple should've gone with the DEC Alpha, but when that one died so did RISC on the desktop. At least for a good long time...
        Oscar Goldman
        • RISC may not be as dead as you think...

          I believe that Intel, has incorporated many RISC features into their processors. Many of their processors are hybrid based chips, taking advantage of the best of both the CISC and RISC techniques.
          Jackie-Smith
          • It IS RISC, just the micro kernel

            They didn't just include RISC, their processors have a RISC microkernel. They are CISC from an instruction set point of view which is nice for those directly programming the device.
            DevGuy_z
        • DEC Alpha

          That chip didn't die, it was just DEC that sold their IP. Thanks to DEC you now have Windows NT technology (or what was left, after being bastardised by Microsoft).
          danbi