Apple to migrate Macs to ARM chips in 2021?

Famed Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo claims Apple will introduce Mac desktops and notebooks based on ARM chips.

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The “Apple will switch to ARM” story continues with TF International Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo’s latest claim that Macs will begin the migration to Apple’s own ARM-based processors starting in 2021.

Not one Mac, but many

If the report is correct (which Kuo's claims often seem to be), the iPhone maker will introduce both desktop and notebook Macs equipped with its new processor next year. 

(The analyst predicted the first ARM-powered Mac would appear in Q4 2020 or Q1 2021. In related news, he also predicts support for USB 4.0 in 2022.)

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

Apple’s A-series processors also deliver significant performance.

Recent speed tests suggest the iPhone and iPad chips already beat Intel’s latest Mac processors, in benchmark, if not real-world terms. The A12Z chip inside the latest iPad Pro outperforms most high-end laptops.

There are several reasons the move may make sense.

4 reasons to migrate Macs to ARM

  1. Apple will be able to refresh Macs more frequently and won't be limited to following Intel’s processor design road map.
  2. Processors will be cheaper by up to 60%, which could translate into lower-cost Macs – or higher-end features as standard.
  3. A move to adopt these chips would also give Apple an opportunity to differentiate its hardware against Windows PCs.
  4. Apple may even be able to continue with its passionate commitment to making its platforms thin as thin can be.

Apple has been here before. One of the many reasons it likes to own the underlying technologies in its systems is based on its history of being hampered by partners.

Set your control for the heart of the sun

Take the PowerPC Alliance (Apple, IBM, Motorola); this was meant to accelerate development of the chips used inside Macs. Instead, development lagged until Apple’s computers were quite clearly not as powerful as those offered by the competition.

In response, Apple eventually shifted to chips from Intel. That decision was speculated on for years before it happened. We’ve now heard speculation about a move to ARM since the 2010 A4-powered iPhone 4 launch.

One of the big advantages of the Intel switch was the capacity to run Windows on Macs. This really helped Apple sell Macs, as plenty of iPod owners wanted to use its systems but also wanted to stick with Windows. 

At least for a little while.

This need not change. Windows 10 already runs on ARM processors, so it must surely be possible to run Microsoft’s operating system on Apple’s ARM-based chips. 

Microsoft’s Surface Pro did however, suffer a lack of compatible applications, and that’s an important part of the puzzle for Apple to solve. To an extent, it already has – given the huge population of iOS apps that already run on ARM chips.

(On a related note, I’m pretty certain Apple could clean up the Windows 7 upgrade market if it offered virtual Windows support on iPads as well.)

What about existing Mac apps?

Apple can’t expect every developer to invest the time and resources it takes to ensure their applications work happily on ARM-based Macs from the get-go. This means it’s going to need to do much more work to simplify the process of rebuilding existing apps for any new platform, including some deep thought around key (but granular) use cases.

Think about how developers complain of missing elements in the Catalyst support when exporting iPad apps to Macs, and then multiply the problem by the number of essential professional applications high end Mac users employ.

The company will need to lead this transformation, likely by porting its own pro apps (Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro X) to the architecture. Developers will see this as a big signal of commitment.

There will be compromises

The need to bring developers along for the ride means Apple will have to compromise. That might involve making macOS systems available beside A-series devices, or ensuring ARM Macs can run both operating systems. It could involve something like Rosetta, which allowed PowerPC applications to run on Intel Macs.

The benefit to end users will also need to be explained. After all, unlike the Intel transition, the Macs we use today are already good enough in comparison to the competition.

With this in mind, Apple’s challenge will be to paint a story for these machines that delivers real customer benefits.

Given the coming move to make 5nm A-series chips, such benefits could include extended battery life, processor speed, weight and thinness. But we expect those improvements in each generation of product already.

It will be interesting to see how Apple positions the move as a compelling upgrade.

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