Apple dumping Intel would be a good thing for Macs, but it's a mammoth task

But as with most things, there would be difficulties and downsides. And it might not be so easy for Apple to rid itself completely of its reliance on Intel.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

The rumor that Apple is planning to dump Intel and put its own Arm processors onto Macs is nothing new. And while the latest stoking of the fire doesn't really change that much, Apple's probably in the best position it's ever been to make the switch.

If you've been watching the company carefully, you'll have noticed that it has been paving the way for the switch for some time now. Dropping 32-bit support in macOS Catalina, along with the introduction of the Catalyst project, which made running iPad apps on Macs easier, all strongly suggest at a future where the line between iOS, iPadOS, and macOS is blurry and indistinct.

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There are a lot of very good, compelling even, reasons why Apple should cast Intel aside and go it alone in the processor world.

First, Apple would be free of Intel and could set its own pricing and be in total control of its supply chain. Being in charge of the iPhone and iPad supply chain has allowed Apple to ship tens of millions of units a quarter, while at the same time developing next-generation silicon to an aggressive yearly upgrade cycle.

Processor constraints have, in the past, been blamed by Apple for poorer than expected Mac sales.

Apple's chips are also powerful and efficient, and iPad Pro silicon will soon outperform the Intel Core chips that is found in the MacBook Pro. Looking at the past few years, iPad Pro silicon has seen benchmark performance improve by almost 50 percent year-on-year, compared to less than 20 percent for the MacBook Pro.

Battery performance is also phenomenal, and that too is improving at a tremendous rate. And who doesn't want better battery life?

Makes you wonder why Apple hasn't already made the shift to Arm chips, given all these upsides, doesn't it?

The truth is, it's also a mammoth task.

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First, developing processors for Macs means developing everything else, from motherboards to chipsets to interconnects. It may seem like a sweet deal for Apple to cut Intel out of the loop and grab the processor cash for itself, but that means taking on the cost and responsibility of becoming a chip maker.

And remember, Intel doesn't just make chips for Apple. Apple shifts about 20 million Macs a year, and that might not be enough of an ecosystem to justify becoming a chip maker.

Does Apple want to start making chips for others in order to absorb the cost? That would seem doubtful.

Thinking this through, it seems that it is in Apple's interest to continue working with Intel, or perhaps for a closer alliance with Intel's main rival, AMD (why not, given that AMD is quite a silicon powerhouse).

And just how far would Apple go with Arm. Replacing Intel Core chips with Arm seems doable, but replacing the Xeon chips in the Mac Pro or iMac Pro is another matter. The market is small, and taking that over would make far less sense.

Even if you think Apple is ready to take on designing and producing processors and motherboards and chipsets and interconnects for laptops and desktops, is it ready to take on that workload for multi-socket workstation hardware?

Then there's the question of how many customers Apple might lose by making the shift. Windows support on Arm-powered Macs would vanish, and that might be a problem for some.

Then there's whole inertia of change. Some users like change, others loathe it.

I know that many Apple fans would love for everything from the atoms up in their Apple-branded gadgets to be made by Apple, but in the real world that takes a lot of time, effort, know-how, and money. While there's little doubt that Apple could take on the entire processor supply chain, whether it makes sound business sense is another matter.

My guess -- and right now it is little more than a guess -- is that the MacBook Air would be a good place for Apple to showcase what an Arm processor could do. It would allow Apple to show off performance and battery benefits, and act as a teaser for things to come without upending everything. However, even this limited approach could have odd consequences downstream as some panic that everything is about to change, and others hold off buying other hardware for fears it might become prematurely obsolete.

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