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

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.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

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.

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