Making the case for an ARM-based MacBook

While the new iPhone launch event left me lukewarm, the introduction of a 64-bit processor stirred the technologist in me. The new processor in the iPhone can easily power a MacBook in the not-too-distant future.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor
ARM MacBook
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

Like my colleague Jason Perlow, the unveiling of the 64-bit ARM processor in the new iPhone struck a cord with me. It wasn't an accident that Apple execs kept referring to the new processor as "forward thinking" and that it brings "desktop class" processing to the new iPhone.

Perlow penned a thoughtful piece about the future of Apple's products with a merger of iOS and OS X coming down the road. His view is fascinating and probably spot on. It makes sense for Apple to merge its two OSes at some point in the future. Perlow's article is worth a read for its insightfulness and you should stop right now and go read it.

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I agree with Jason in regards to where Apple is likely heading with its products. It makes perfect sense to merge both the OSes and the hardware lines as much as possible. The long-term roadmap that Perlow envisions is a solid one, and I wouldn't be surprised if he's right with this call.

Apple could incent developers to port their OS X apps to the new ARM Mac, and even iPad apps could appear on it.

I think there's a short-term scenario that Jason doesn't discuss that I believe Apple could tackle very soon. The 64-bit processor that's in the new iPhone is very powerful, easily powerful enough to run a MacBook. I wouldn't be surprised if Apple is already working on a full port of OS X to this new processor, which makes sense on many levels.

Apple could produce a MacBook Air-type laptop with the ARM processor onboard. OS X is based on a Unix core after all, and that could be ported to the 64-bit ARM processor without a huge effort. Microsoft ported Windows to ARM and that was a much bigger task than bringing OS X would be to ARM. Apple controls every aspect of the processor, OS, and the apps which works in its favor.

This MacBook could be produced more cheaply than Intel versions and avoid the standard heat issues for such a thin laptop. The battery life, admittedly good on the Air with the Intel Haswell processor inside, could be even better with an ARM processor. They typically run cooler and are power-stingy, both good things in a MacBook. Apple could make the ARM MacBook case out of plastic, er, polycarbonate, instead of aluminum which would lower the cost signficantly.

I believe Apple is already working on such a beast secretly, and could bring an ARM-based MacBook to market quickly. It could be cheaper than the Intel versions and become an entry-level Mac for emerging markets, students, and other segments where a cheaper Mac makes sense.

Apple could incent developers to port their OS X apps to the new ARM Mac, and even iPad apps could appear on it. That could mean the ARM Mac might have a touch screen, which would make sense with iPad apps arriving in number.

I can visualize a MacBook with the 64-bit ARM processor inside, and I believe it would be a killer laptop. Running full OS X, it would be a good first step on Perlow's path to merge iOS and OS X.

There is precedent for an ARM laptop. Google has already successfully ported Chrome OS to the ARM platform. The $249 Samsung Chromebook has been a top seller on Amazon for months, partially due to how well that OS runs on ARM. Microsoft has ported Windows 8 to ARM, although Windows RT hasn't been a big seller. That's probably due more to the perceived shortcomings of Windows RT than the ARM platform.

Why would Apple introduce a cheap ARM MacBook which would cannibalize its lucrative MacBook line? The company has demonstrated with the iPad and iPad mini that it is all about profits, not unit sales. An ARM MacBook could be a very profitable product line in this writer's view, and pave the way for Perlow's unified platform.

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