Why Apple won't move the Mac to ARM

Apple's A10 bionic chip is as fast as many x86 chips. Which leads to speculation that Apple will migrate macOS to its own chips. Here's why that won't happen.

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Apple did a marvelous job migrating macOS from Motorola 68000 chips to Power PC and then to Intel x86. With the amazing success of Apple's ARM-based A series chips, speculation arises that they will do it again.

But that misunderstands the dynamics driving Apple's business. Sure, Apple would like to avoid paying the Intel x86 tax. But, just as in real life, taxes are rarely the business driver that politicians pretend they are.

Apple is playing a longer game.

Push-pull

Looking back on Apple's prior CPU migrations, they had both a technology push and a market pull. The 68000 family wasn't keeping up with Intel, and IBM's PowerPC promised to do that.

But then PowerPC couldn't keep up with Intel and x86 performance either. In the meantime, Intel got rid of the many x86 architectural kludges that bedeviled the product -- like the 640KB memory limit -- which tech purists found distasteful.

At the same time, the success of the revamped Mac line, beginning with the iMac, created market pull. Apple execs could see that going with the dominant CPU would pay real business dividends, especially when Intel threw in sweeteners to get Apple to migrate.

Intel tax?

Apple dominates the high-end notebook market with excellent margins, partly because their hardware is of demonstrably higher quality. Since all of the competition pays the same prices as Apple does, Intel's prices aren't relevant to the Mac business. MacBooks compete against other x86 machines, so Intel's prices simply ensure a level playing field.

There is simply no technology or marketing reason for Apple to migrate macOS from x86. I'm certain they could do it, but without a good reason, why would they?

What about iOS?

Apple's long game is to grow the iOS business, and let customers decide which platform they prefer. Apple has been gradually making iOS more capable, and now iOS 11 can finally replace notebooks for many users, which for me came with the iOS 11 Files app.

Apple's A series chips

At the same time Apple, who sells as many A-series processors as Intel sells PC CPUs, has been ramping up A-series performance. According to the Geekbench 4.0 benchmark, the A10 Bionic chip is competitive with the 13" MacBook Pro 2.3 GHz dual core i5, and only falls noticeably behind the 2.8 Ghz quad core i7 in multicore performance.

Here's the benchmarks, from the fine folks at Everymac.com.

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Geekbench 4.0 benchmark results

Courtesy Everymac.com

Graphics benchmarks tell a similar story. Apple's graphics are competitive with Intel's Iris graphics, and only fall far behind dedicated graphics cards found in higher end notebooks. And Apple only recently announced that they were designing their own graphics chips. Given their total control of the system stack, I expect them to do better than average in the future.

The iOS device cost advantage

It's been popular for many years to decry a largely a largely illusory "Apple Tax". But if you are on a budget, iPads allow you entry into the Apple ecosystem for a lot less money than MacBooks.

How much less? When I compared list prices for iPad Pros with Apple Smart Keyboards, against the MacBook and MacBook Pro with equivalent storage capacities, the iOS devices were anywhere from 14 to 34 percent less. And if you don't need the latest and greatest, Apple's 9.7" iPad will save you hundreds more.

Of course, the configurations have significant differences, such as Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C, larger RAM capacities, touchscreens, cameras, and different upgrade options. But the point is that iOS devices offer a significantly lower entry cost than Macs.

The iOS software advantage

So you can save real money on iOS hardware. Yet the larger advantage of iOS are the software savings. Apple has sold a billion iOS devices, so developers can charge less and make it up in volume.

With over a million iPad apps available, there's little you can't do on an iPad, and for a lot less money. It's a rare app that costs more than $50, and most Pro apps are under $20.

But what's really great about the app selection is that there are well-done specialized apps for that are typically $5 or less. Want an app for generating professional video intros and extras? IntroMate has you covered. Need to automate workflows? Try Workflow -- for free. Writing a novel? Scrivener has you covered.

The Storage Bits take

Apple has no reason to abandon Intel, so they won't. And as the upcoming iMac Pros and the new Mac Pro arrive, we'll see why. Intel's many-core chips can do the heavy lifting that Pro users require, and that very few consumers need today.

By offering powerful iPad Pros, Apple is giving customers who work on their machines a choice -- and an economic incentive to go all iOS. It also moves Apple into a lower price tier, without hurting the margins that allow them to make huge investments in chip design and other critical technologies.

That's what guarantees that Apple, and iOS, will continue to move forward.

Courteous comments welcome, of course.

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