Apple dumps Intel for MacBooks: does it matter?

By Jonny Evans

Flimsy reports claim Apple [AAPL] may ditch Intel in favor of adopting ARM-based processors across its product range. But does it matter? Is it really such a surprise? After all, MacBook Air shows us future mobile Macs will be high-performance machines equipped with SSDs and lengthy battery lives.


Apple's chip packet

A glance at the company's published financial statements shows us it purchased well over 61 million processors in FY2010 and is on target to hit 100 million this year. If the company can save just one dollar on every chip by unifying processor platforms, then why not do just that?

"It won't be really soon, but we are told it is a done deal," claims SemiAccurate. "x86 is history on Apple laptops, or will be in 2-3 years. In any case, it is a done deal, Intel is out, and Apple chips are in."

[Don't neglect that my estimates of processors purchased so far this year (and last) don't include iPod touch or Apple TV sales. They include only processors used in iPhones, iPads and Macs, and not any other Apple product, including replacement products, so the actual figure is certainly higher.]

There's so much gossip: You have reports claiming the Intel deal's in danger, others claiming  Intel, TSMC, Global Foundries and Samsung are jostling for the Apple iOS chip-making deal; others explore 3D and other future tech implementations.

I do find it interesting that Apple and chips rumors always ignite around April/May? After all, April 23, 2008 and Apple-watchers were pondering Apple's $278 purchase of PA Semi.

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Trick or treat

These claims could just be a negotiating trick. Potentially this is the time of year Apple sits down with its suppliers and hammers out its contracts (and prices) for the coming year. Perhaps that's why these claims are in circulation: perhaps Apple just wants a better deal from Intel. After all, the company is offering a pretty big pie....

What's at stake? At present, Apple's iPads use A5 processors while its iPhones, iPod touch and Apple TV devices use A4 processors. This will change as the devices go through the normal product transitions. Macs use completely different processors, manufactured by Intel. The iMacs introduced this week feature Intel's all-new Sandy bridge processor technology.


Because Apple makes the hardware and develops the software it can deliver a consistent experience, and that's part of the company's M.O. Let's consider Apple's market position:

  • The iPad has devoured the netbook market. Apple sold nearly 15 million iPads in 2010 and the company claims 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies are testing or deploying iPads. Example firms include, Xerox, AutoNation, Yum! Brands, ADP, Boston Scientific, Estée Lauder, Disney, Stryker, Prudential Financial, Rite Aid and USAA.
  • IDC predicts the PC industry will contract 3 percent this year. Mac sales climbed 28 percent in the just gone quarter. Apple is growing while the PC industry slows.
  • The iPhone/iPad halo is transforming itself into a scenario which favors adoption of the Mac. Good Technology data claims iOS devices represented just under 70 percent of net new activations across US enterprises between January 1 through March 31, 2011, with financial services, healthcare and high-tech enterprises most iPad-hungry.


Will Apple unify its platforms on one family of processors?

"The short story is that Apple is moving the laptop line, and presumably desktops too, to ARM-based chips as soon as possible," the report explains, claiming that development of 64-bit ARM-based chips will be required to make such a move possible.

Apple COO, Tim Cook is a logistics guy, so the potential of bringing chip design in house and securing tight production deals with third party fabs can't have missed him.

In favor: Apple also has a host of in-house processor design experience, including remaining experts from PA Semi, Intrinsity and others. While not every expert hire has stuck with the company, some have, making its A4 and A5 chips marvels of mobile processor design. Apple's leading iDevice competitor, Samsung, even uses the same basic ARM Cortex reference chip design as the A4 processor within its Galaxy range. Microsoft has promised that the next version of Windows will run on ARM processors.

Against: There's arguments against the proposition, too: ARM processors don't have the power of Intel's top-tier chips; there's the challenge in persuading developers to retool code to work on the new platforms; there's the need to ensure that whatever processor is used never ever seems to lag the power of devices on competing chip architectures. We don't want an x86 v. PowerPC debate again, now, do we?

The need for some developers to switch their Apps across to the new platform may also stymie any such plans. Though it is worth bearing in mind that as Apps are released for both Mac and iOS platforms, Apple developers are already engaged in creating similar Apps for both processor families. And in any case, the Mac App Store will become an income guarantee for many developers.

Has the Eagle landed?

Then there's ARM's 64-bit promise, the A15, code-named 'Eagle'. This 32-nanometer, quad-core processor is designed for laptops and servers. It has 1, 2, 4 or 8 cores, supports 1TB memory and a clockspeed of up to 2.5GHz. ARM's product description has some interesting notes on virtualization.

"The growing complexity of the Web2.0 centric devices is creating the requirement for devices to support multiple software personalities and combine disparate functionality. For this reason the Cortex-A15 MPCore processor introduces new technology from ARM that enables efficient handling of the complex software environments including full hardware virtualization, Large Physical Address Extensions (LPAE) addressing up to 1TB of memory as well as error correction capability for fault-tolerance and soft-fault recovery.

"The Cortex-A15 MPCore processor is the first ARM processor to incorporate highly efficient hardware support for data management and arbitration, enabling multiple software environments and their applications to simultaneously access the system capabilities. This enables the realization of devices that are robust, with virtual environments that are isolated from each other."

While I can imagine Apple continuing to diversify its product range with new products running on ARM processors, I can't quite see a total Intel dump. Intel will remain, powering up the professional and desktop Macs.

The sting in the tail of this is that these machines will account for less of Apple's business than ever before. And that's the point really, because it will be mobile experiences which count in the post-PC age, and mobile devices which propel Apple's growth, so does Intel matter as much any more?

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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