It seems that Apple is paving the way to change the Mac's processor architecture once again. But the last time the shift was focused exclusively to the desktops and laptops. This time around it will be far more wide-ranging, changing the entire face of Apple's ecosystem.
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Rumors that Apple is planning to ditch Intel and stride out into the world of desktop and laptop processors have been making the rounds for quite some time now. However, last year things seemed to firm up a bit, suggesting that the switch could kick off as early as 2020.
Combine this with the equally credible reports that Apple is also planning to bring to developers the tools they need to be able to develop a single app and offer it for the iPhone, iPad, and Mac, then you begin to see just how wide-ranging this change could be.
This is far, far bigger than the shift that Apple made from PowerPC to Intel, a transition it kicked off at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) back in 2005.
The move makes a lot of sense. The Intel chip inside Macs is the only processor Apple uses that isn't based on ARM technology, and they are the only processors not designed by Apple. The move would unify the Apple ecosystem in a way that no other ecosystem of hardware and software currently on offer could match. It would allow tighter integration between the hardware and the software, paving the way not only for cross-platform apps, but also for improvements such as better battery life and more robust security.
It also means that Apple could be able to lock down Mac apps in the same way that it has been able to do with iOS apps, making them exclusive to the Mac App Store, and grabbing 30 percent of every sale.
As iPhone sales slip, this could be a lucrative revenue stream.
Looking beyond Apple, while the move would no doubt be a bit of a blow for Intel, it's not as significant as it might seem on the surface. Apple only represents about five percent of Intel's revenue.
However, as the first major computer maker to fully turn its back on Intel, it could be a catalyst for the likes of Dell, HP, and Lenovo to start taking ARM chips more seriously.
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But what does this mean for buyers? I've received quite a few questions relating to whether it's wise to be spending money on Apple hardware at a time when a major architecture shift could be happening.
Well, is it?
As always, the answer is that it depends.
If you're someone who is all-in on the Apple ecosystem, and refreshes their hardware every year or so -- or at least as far as Macs are concerned, whenever new stuff comes out -- then this isn't that big of a deal. Yes, the transition will affect you, and could very well affect things like workflow, and render some applications that you currently use obsolete, but people who live and work on the cutting edge are used to this.
The people who, as far as I see, should proceed with caution are those who make their hardware last as long as possible. The folks who tease out every last hour out of their hardware, running it until the last wisp of Magic Smoke has gone, or until Apple renders it obsolete by no longer supporting it (and I know a lot of people out there who still run, and rely on, hardware that Apple considers obsolete).
It's you folks who like to get every last cent of value out of their hardware who need to tread carefully. Changes are undoubtedly coming, and it's likely that a change in processors and architecture is only the tip of the iceberg. It's likely that iOS will also change direction, taking the iPhone and iPad in a direction that aligns them more with Macs. And that means that apps -- both in terms of what they do, how developers interact with their customers, and how we buy them -- will change.
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Also, by 2021, we will be looking at a few iterations of the iPhone and iPad, bring more power, performance, and storage capacity. And if Apple is looking to move away from Intel over the coming year or so, the Macs currently on offer may very well be the last Intel-based Macs offered.
Another interesting idea to ponder is how exactly will Apple make the switch from Intel to ARM chips? Will it be sudden, with the entire line being shifted over, or will it be more gradual? What about high-end Macs aimed at professionals, such as the iMac Pro and Mac Pro? Will this hardware shift over to ARM too (a move that could cause huge headaches for professionals who rely on them)? Will they stay as Intel-based offerings? Will they be offered in both flavors in the interim?
A clean break with Intel would send a decisive message that the age of Intel-based Macs is over. Offering both ARM and Intel hardware might lessen the headaches but also come across as hedging, which itself could harm adoption of the ARM-based Macs and put a dampener on developer interest.
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For those who spend big dollars on pro Macs (I'm talking about people who equip entire production shops with them, not those who buy one or two systems, which I suppose also fall into the category of "big dollars"), this is something to think about. After all, the transition to ARM could be as expensive and painful -- if not more expensive and painful -- than shifting to Windows.
Uncertain times are ahead. As usual, Apple does not comment on rumors and future plans, which itself adds to the uncertainty.
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