Apple may introduce an ARM-powered Mac in 2021

But Apple will need to convince customers and clients that there are real benefits to any such transition to a new processor.

Apple, Intel, ARM, iOS, Catalysts, iPad, iPhone, Mac

The rumor that would not die appears to be turning into a reality, with Apple allegedly intending to introduce some form of Mac powered by an Apple-designed ARM-based A-series processor in 2021.

Unique technology advantage

Apple’s silicon development team has pushed A-series processor development hard. Not only do the processors – used inside all Apple’s mobile products – lead the industry in terms of power, energy and performance, but they now deliver more performance than some Macs,reports claimed.

Apple’s software teams, at the same time, have been working to develop Mac Catalyst – software that enables developers to more quickly and easily export their apps from the iPad to the Mac. The first of these ports are hitting the market at this time. The capabilities of Catalyst will likely improve this year.

Apple has always denied plans to merge its Mac and iOS lines, stressing the unique differences (and platform advantages) of both its complementary platforms. Yet even Intel executives have expected the company to move to its own chips.

We’ve all wondered how to decode this information. Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo now believes Apple will introduce an ARM-based Mac (using an Apple A-series processor) in 2021.

We know the company is investing in development of 5-nanometer A-series chips, with 3nm designs likely also on the map, and Apple recently recruited ARM’s lead CPU and systems architect, Mike Filippo.

“We think that iPhone 5G support, ‌iPad‌'s adoption of innovative mid-size panel technology, and Mac's first adoption of the own-design processor are all Apple's critical product and technology strategies,” the analyst wrote, according to MacRumors.

What happens next?

What makes this potential transition interesting is that in comparison with previous migrations (to Intel chips or even to OS X), many key applications are already available on both iOS and macOS systems.

Apple’s Catalyst now exists to ease any such transition and it seems quite probable Apple will improve that tool, perhaps (as Steve Troughton-Smith speculates) as soon as WWDC 2020 – assuming that event goes ahead, given the continuing impact of the Coronavirus.

There are lots of assumptions to consider, yet Apple is quite good at managing transitions of this kind. It has plenty of experience acquired across the years.

That experience means it is very unlikely that Apple will simply spring a transition on its Mac ecosystem without providing warning and equipping developers with the tools and resources they will need to make that change.

This is a particular issue in Apple’s professional markets, as the highly sophisticated software those markets rely on won’t necessarily run on anything other than Intel chips – and a transition will be costly and complex.

This suggests that any move will be staggered, accompanied by continued improvements in the developer ecosystem (such as Catalyst 2, etc.) and may see Apple sell both Intel and iOS Macs during any transition period.

I suspect this means we’ll see an ARM-powered Apple notebook introduced as a test system to gather feedback and give devs a chance to work on the platform.

What about price?

I’ve seen some reports that hint Apple would be able to acquire A-series processors at a lower cost than those it gets from Intel.

If true, then it seems potentially possible the company could make these Macs available for lower cost than its current configurations, though Apple's usual strategy would be to improve its product with market leading features, such as 5G.

The strategy matches the company's direction. Apple CEO Tim Cook said in 2009: “We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.”

What's the time frame?

I can buy the 2021 introduction/announcement of these plans, but I’m not convinced Apple will transition its entire Mac product line to the processor in anything like that time frame.

You see, while it moved to Intel processors quickly, it was under a different set of pressures when it did, and the transition delivered evident benefits.

For one thing, Apple’s existing architecture at that time desperately needed replacing as PowerPC had failed to keep up with the market; For another, most of its customers and developers (with a few notable exceptions) were keen to join it on the ride.

Things are different this time around.

Apple will need to convince its audiences that returning to an isolated processor architecture (though this time 100% its own) and reworking software to run on that architecture makes sense. To do so it has to ensure the benefits of the transition are very obvious, and right now I don’t think the capacity to run iOS apps on Macs is a good enough reason.

With this in mind, any such move must deliver immediate real world benefits, which may include the battery life, performance and graphics support we expect to see from the company’s upcoming 5nm processor designs.

But will those advantages be enough to convince Mac users to migrate?

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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