Apple dumping Intel for ARM? Pros, cons and a lot of questions

The rumor of the day is that Apple is dumping Intel and its x86 architecture for ARM---at least on laptops. The big question is how much credence do we give to these reports. Here are the key questions.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

The rumor of the day is that Apple is dumping Intel and its x86 architecture for ARM---at least on laptops.

Semi-Accurate---a wonderful name for a site with an Apple ARM rumor---notes:

  • Apple's move to ARM with its laptop line is a done deal.
  • Mid-2013 is the timeline.
  • 64-bit cores are the big hurdle for ARM.
  • That's why Apple is looking for fab capacity.

Now the idea that Apple would move to ARM isn't exactly new. Jason Perlow argued that case a while ago. The big question is how much credence do we give to these SemiAccurate reports. Here are the key questions:

Does Apple and ARM make sense? Yes. Apple would be able to unify its platform and simplify into one ecosystem. It's likely that iOS and Mac OS merge at some point. We all know iOS rules the roost and that system happens to run on ARM. In addition, Apple's laptops are likely to be more of the MacBook Air variety. Think tablet/laptop hybrids. That fact favors ARM too. The problem with all of this is you have to wonder how ARM will play on high-performance Mac laptops and desktops.

When would all of Apple be ARM? That move would take some time. If laptops went in 2013, all of Macs would probably follow a few years later. Why? Raw power.

Would Mac need to be x86? Not at all. ARM chips are likely to be good enough. Meanwhile, hulking Mac towers may not even exist in 2016.

Could Apple go the custom chip route again? Sure it could and already does. The pros would be better margins. The cons is that Apple would have to keep up with Intel's tick tock cadence. Good luck with that. Jason O'Grady notes:

Apple acquired ARM chip maker P.A. Semi in April 2008 for around $300 million in cash which Steve Jobs then explained as a way to acquire expertise and technology to help run increasingly sophisticated software on iPhones and iPods. Shortly thereafter Apple acquired ARM core experts Intrinsity for a reported $121 million. Then in 2009 Apple hired two former CTOs from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).

In April 2010 all the talk was about how Apple could/would/should acquire ARM.

Is good enough processors really good enough? Here's the thing with processing power. You always have more than you need---until some killer apps comes along and you need more performance. Performance doesn't matter until it does.

What card can Intel play? VentureBeat made the argument that Intel's Tri-Gate transistor announcement this week makes the Apple -ARM talk pure folly. The problem with the argument is that Tri-Gate is manufacturing process not an architecture. Intel execs avoided all talk of an architecture Holy War with ARM and x86. Reading between those comments leaves the door open that Intel could use Tri-Gate for ARM architecture. Also:

Is the ARM talk overblown? Yes. Let's say Intel does ARM---a move that would make sense since the chip giant needs the tablet and smartphone market. Apple would stay on board. With the timelines SemiAccurate is posing, Intel will be onto 14nm. Remember Intel's manufacturing process is second to none. If it comes down to moving chips, Intel isn't going to sweat architecture religion.

Add it up and it's quite possible that Apple goes ARM. But don't be surprised if Intel tags along somehow.

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