Why now? What would drive the Mac's move to Apple's ARM family

Processor transitions are hard. But the stars are aligning for Apple to bring the Mac to its homegrown chip family.

What to look for in the new MacBook Air

If rumors hold true, we can expect Apple to start introducing Macs based on its own A-series chips next year. Such a transition would represent the third major processor architecture transition for the third and likely last time in its astonishing 36-year roller coaster ride. That's several lifetimes compared to many computing platforms. Following the first transition from Motorola's 68000 family to PowerPC and then PowerPC to x86, the Mac would finally come to a processor family developed on its home turf.

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This transition would have different rationales than the others, which were both driven by competition with Intel. The mid-1990s PowerPC transition reflected Apple's reluctance to adopt the same processor used by its PC competitors, while the mid-2000s Intel transition signified Apple's acceptance that it had to to remain competitive. Thermal efficiency played a role in both of those transitions, and it would in an ARM transition for the Mac as well.

But, back in those days, the Mac was essentially Apple's business. These days, it is not only a small part of its business, but something of a question mark as Apple keeps heralding the iPad as the future of the PC and. enhancing its tablet to fulfill that prophecy. On the other hand, Apple often reiterates its love for the Mac when it introduces new models, so why make the disruptive effort of a brain transplant now?

Reducing cost and improving control. Mac specifics aside, Apple would want to move its laptops to its own chips for the same reasons it started designing chips at all: to deliver tighter integration, optimize features for its own products, eliminate the need to compete for supply, and cut the cost of any margin charged by suppliers that could be used to fuel R&D for competitors.

Improving mobility and performance per watt. There is no need to wonder if an A-series-based Mac would provide satisfactory performance while increasing battery life for most mainstream tasks. That concept has been proven out by the work that Microsoft has done with Qualcomm on what had been called Windows on Snapdragon. But the performance has become so acceptable that Microsoft now just refers to the product as "Windows 10," just like the x86 version. The Always Connected PC architecture has been the basis for some of the sleekest PC designs to come out in the past year or two, such as the Surface Pro X.

And while Qualcomm and Microsoft have achieved much progress working together over the past few years, it stands to reason that Apple would be able to accelerate the optimization of system software and processors with both being under the same, possibly circular, roof. This rings particularly true given that, in Microsoft's ideal world, there are multiple chip providers to ensure competition whereas, in Apple's, there is only one (itself).

Easing cross-platform development. While there would be growing pains and a long path to its pro-level desktops, for example, making the switch (at some point, every soldier leaves Boot Camp) means we could expect the MacBooks of the future to be closer cousins to the iPad than ever. For, while Apple has always rejected merging the Mac and iPad, it has always embraced cross-pollinating features between them. While the iPad continues to grow more capable and flexible with each release of iPadOS and the differences narrow, there will simply be some users who prefer a mouse-driven windowed interface in a true clamshell device for some time. And getting the Mac and iPad on the same processor architecture improve optimizations around its Catalyst cross-platform development initiative.

Apple has long been dropping a big hint about its transition plans in noting that the iPad Pro outperforms most PCs on the market; its chip progress has been a driving factor in the timing of the transition. But comparisons with the iPad also bring up an option related to timing that the iPad has had for years and the Mac never has: Cellular connectivity. As many of Apple's major markets are transitioning to 5G and as Qualcomm-based PCs have shown, cellular connectivity would be a natural match for what would surely be some of the sleekest Macs ever and would align especially well with the company's messaging of its commitment to security and privacy.


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