Apple dumps Intel for ARM in future Macs? Or is this the iPad Pro?

Apple [AAPL] news watchers can pretty much determine just where we are in the iPhone release cycle by the prevalence of increasingly far-fetched claims as pundits and prestidigitators seek out the next big Cupertino tale, but today’s claim -- that Apple’s looking to dump Intel for ARM chips in future Macs -- is completely true, except that it’s not.

Apple dumps Intel for ARM chips for iPad Pro

[ABOVE: Apple's been looking at logical ways to merge iOS with OS X devices for some time -- is the above patent filing all about the iPad Pro?]

Long ARM of Bloomberg law

The source seems pretty good: Bloomberg. That’s not a news organization that got where it is today by blathering on with every claim, which suggests there’s a little truth behind the claim -- but only a little...because I’m certain Apple’s looking at the possibility, but it’s more likely the firm will introduce dual chip support, of which more later.

In brief, the story goes like this: Apple’s exploring ways to dump Intel from Macs, replacing those processors with new chips based on the ARM architecture as used in iOS devices. 

The thing is, Bloomberg isn’t talking about Apple making any decisive move to the new chips, nor is it definitively claiming Apple has this on its road map -- simply that Apple’s looking into the possibility. I doubt anyone at Intel’s losing too much sleep on this -- after all, Apple had OS X running on Intel processors deep inside its labs from day one of that release. All Intel needs to do is keep on improving the processors it supplies to the company.

Apple engineers have grown confident that the chip designs used for its mobile devices will one day be powerful enough to run its desktops and laptops, said three people with knowledge of the work, who asked to remain anonymous because the plans are confidential,” writes Bloomberg.

That makes complete sense. It’s inevitable that Apple’s ARM-based mobile processors will improve up to a point at which they can be successfully deployed inside of future Macs. 

That’s cause enough for Apple’s new future Technology group to be looking at the possibility as it attempts to develop future product families that implement its knowledge and experience.

Ambitious plans

In its October 29 statement announcing creation of the new group, Apple admitted to having “ambitious plans” for its semiconductor teams.

I don’t believe Apple is looking to a wholesale replacement of the processors inside its Macs at this point. There’s several reasons for this, to summarize some of these:

There’s insufficient chip engineering talent

The challenge of going it alone would cast Apple into an incredibly challenging environment as it attempted to find and recruit the best available engineers. That scarcity would make it difficult for the company to find and maintain a processor advantage in the face of better-resourced firms such as Intel.

Developers may be unhappy

Recall how long it took to bring some developers over to OS X and then to Intel? Any attempt to port software to a new chip architecture will require deep leadership on Apple’s part, as developers will not want the additional work and expense any such move may require.

Manufacturing matters

Samsung is on the way out, leaving Apple with TSMC as its most likely port of call for processor production. While the number of chips used in iOS devices already dwarfs those used in the Mac range, the company would have to find a way to avoid placing all its trust in one manufacturing partner to avoid another instance of being thrust into a very challenging situation in a competitive environment.

It doesn’t need to

Intel’s road maps are pretty secure. Apple shifted to Intel because the PowerPC initiative had failed and the company needed to match PC makers on processor speed, Gigaflops or no. Too much differentiation in the PC space may isolate Apple once again -- not a great step when Mac sales are already growing faster than the industry.

Analysts are already responding to Bloomberg’s claims.

Wu sees the writing on the wall

Always hungry to be in the headline, Sterne Agee’s own Shaw Wu pipes up with his thoughts this morning:

We are frankly not surprised as this has been talked about since iPad shipped in 2010 and Mac OS X Lion in 2011 that borrowed heavily from iOS. We believe it is inevitable to merge iOS and Mac but not likely for a few years as Mac code is optimized for Intel. In addition, 3 million iPads were sold over opening weekend, double the previous record which should help alleviate iPad mini demand concerns.”

His reasons against include the challenge optimizing OS X apps for iOS chips.

His reason in favor of such a plan makes more sense: 

One key argument to merge is to simplify the architecture but to also take advantage of the large code base that has been developed on iOS by Apple itself as well as through third-party vendors via the App Store. In addition, merging could also allow Apple to deliver a more seamless and integrated experience across its platforms. The other reality is that Mac represents only 14-18 percent of its revenue compared to 45-50 percent for iPhone and 20-25 percent for iPad.”

I think Wu’s right in his warning: Apple is looking for ways by which it can deliver a more unified (“simplified”) experience between the Mac and the iDevice. 

It also wants to unify the software which runs on both platforms, insofar as such a step makes sense, of course. To be clear, we’re not looking at a complete merge -- it makes little sense to use touch interfaces on a screen that’s at eye level. 

Right and wrong

Bloomberg gets one thing wrong in its report. “For example, the thousands of applications for the iPhone and iPad and some of Apple’s newest features, such as the Siri voice-command tool, don’t work on Intel-based Macs,” it claims.

That’s true up to a point, but given that all iOS apps are built on Macs it’s pretty clear that it’s already technically possible to enable these apps to work on a Mac. Siri? 

It’s inevitable that support for Apple’s virtual assistant will be bestowed upon the Mac at some point, after all, it’s a server-based system so it’s by no means impossible to bring it to both platforms.

I don’t think Apple isn’t looking to migrate the Mac to ARM processors. It’s looking to bring more of the Mac experience across to iOS devices. 

I believe that’s also inevitable as post-PC devices become more powerful and more capable of engaging in complex computational tasks. Your mobile device will be a Mac you take with you. Working with huge files? For those things you'll still need a truck aka Mac. 

I’d argue that what Apple’s Technology team isn’t the Mac, but the evolution of the iPad Pro

I don’t think we’ll be waiting too many years before Apple introduces such a device, potentially in a dual-use form factor, in which you have a thicker iPad when using the device when closed, or a full-fledged MacBook Air when you open it up. 

I’d consider such a possibility a great deal more likely than wholesale replacement of the processors inside the Mac. It’s an evolutionary step, of course, like all PCs, the Mac will also become obsolescent as mobile devices become more powerful.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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