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Apple may co-design special new ARM chips for its laptop and desktop computers

Bob Mansfield, Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL"Technologies" group senior vice president, recently announced that his semiconductor teams have "ambitious plans for the future."

I. Change Ahead?

For Apple, who has been quietly been growing its chipmaking army with acquisitions like P.A. Semi and Intrinsity, that could mean a switch from Intel Corp.'s (INTC) x86 chips on the Mac computer front to in-house system-on-a-chip (SoC) designs utilizing ARM Holdings plc.'s (LON:ARM) proprietary architecture, which is currently found in Apple's iPhones, iPods, and iPads.

new report from Bloomberg suggests Apple is exploring a possible exit from its dependence on Intel chips, over the next several years.  The news agency writes:

While Apple is now committed to Intel in computers and is unlikely to switch in the next few years, some engineers say a shift to its own designs is inevitable as the features of mobile devices and PCs become more similar, two people said.
As handheld devices increasingly function like PCs, the engineers working on this project within Apple envision machines that use a common chip design. If Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook wants to offer the consumer of 2017 and beyond a seamless experience on laptops, phones, tablets and televisions, it will be easier to build if all the devices have a consistent underlying chip architecture, according to one of the people.

ARM core
Apple is rumored to be contemplating switching its Macs to ARM chips.
[Image Source: Maximum PC]

None of the companies involved were willing to comment on the rumor.  However, this has not been the first time that Apple has been rumored to be working on computer-side CPUs in-house.

ARM shares climbed 4.2 percent on the London Stock Exchange following this news, and news that ARM had paid MIPS Technologies, Inc. (MIPS) a lump sum of $350M USD to license its portfolio of 580 hardware patents.  The MIPS deal lays to rest concerns that the rival reduced-instruction set computer (RISC) architecture designer might be preparing to sue its more prolific peer (ARM).

II. Lesson From the PowerPC Era

Apple may be reticent to jump into a computer-side deployment of ARM too soon.  

Only a decade ago Apple was supporting another non-x86 architecture -- PowerPC -- whose chips were co-designed by Motorola and International Business Machines, Inc. (IBM).  While PowerPC Macs seemed to be faster in some benchmarks than their higher-clocked Windows/x86 counterparts, Intel's flashy clock speeds during the height of the Megahertz wars hurt Apple from an image standpoint.  And Motorola's decision to bail on PowerPC drove Apple to in 2005 finalize its long-standing plans to jump ship to Intel's x86 chips.

ARM is hardly analogous to PowerPC at present, but it's easy to see why Apple might be uneager to move too fast, should market conditions change.  Indeed, the next few years in the chip market are a time of great uncertainty.  

PowerPC G3
Apple's decision to ditch PowerPC brought it closer in line with Windows OEMs, who also use Intel chips. [Image Source: Bryon Realey/Flickr]

On the one hand, Intel is pushing hard to leverage its process advantages to deliver fast, power-efficient mobile cores, cutting into ARM's core business.  On the other hand, ARM is invading the personal computer market with Windows RT, and is expected to land in the server market around 2014 with Window Server 2012 R2.  ARM has been boosted by x86 veteran Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.'s (AMD) decision to at least partially transition its CPU line to ARM chips.

If Bloomberg's sources are accurate, Apple will likely be hard at work designing a possible ARM-based SoC replacement to drop into its MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros.  But the decision to pull the trigger may ultimately rest on where ARM stands versus Intel/x86 come 2016-2017.

Source: Bloomberg

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Very ambitious.
By JackBurton on 11/6/2012 1:31:02 PM , Rating: 2
That's a VERY ambitious undertaking. However, if there is anyone that can pull it off, it's Apple. Another advantage of controlling the software AND hardware.

RE: Very ambitious.
By XZerg on 11/6/2012 1:42:30 PM , Rating: 1
ditto and i can very much see Apple going for this. this would add one more level of conformity to a "standard" across the Apple products going forward.

With the world becoming based on more and more cross platform compatible the cpu architecture becomes less and less relevant. Before you underestimate this statement imagine the following:
A server computer at home/work hosting compute power and rest of the systems are then just dumb terminals that consume/"produce" content leaving the grunt work to the server to perform remotely. If that's the case, does it really matter what architecture the dumb terminals use? No.

Google and Apple are two companies that can proceed with this concept. Microsoft is getting there and Windows 8 is just what the doctor ordered - common GUI across two major consumer platforms.

RE: Very ambitious.
By amanojaku on 11/6/2012 1:52:19 PM , Rating: 3
What neither of you understand is the design goal ARM has: low power consumption first, performance second. Apple won't be able to refine an ARM CPU to the point that it can compete with x86 performance unless it abandons low power consumption as its primary target. If the source claimed this was just for Mac Airs I could see this working. For a full-blown laptop not even a 64-bit ARM can compete.

RE: Very ambitious.
By XZerg on 11/6/2012 2:13:32 PM , Rating: 2
did you read the part about dumb terminals? do you honestly feel that most of the smartphones and tablets out there today cannot take the place of the dumb terminals? they can easily do so. Hence, switching the architecture would do absolutely zilch in that ecosystem.

I, myself, have been looking to do that exact setup for years at home. Yes there are some applications the technologies/ecosystem are not mature enough for at the moment but if a company as big as Apple/Microsoft/Google were to push it then it could become the next generation computing. These three have the might and know-how to do so too, unlike many of the computing devices makers only.

RE: Very ambitious.
By amanojaku on 11/6/2012 3:05:06 PM , Rating: 2
Since when does Apple sell dumb terminals? And Apple abandoned the server market a few years ago. Your idea makes sense for any company other than Apple. The source mentioned Airs and MacBooks, neither of which would be satisfied with a dumb terminal processor. Other companies are already making dumb terminals with ARM CPUs. Look at Wyse.

RE: Very ambitious.
By someguy123 on 11/6/2012 3:36:51 PM , Rating: 3
That's not really a massive dependency overhaul like what the article implies. Basically they could just turn their apple TV into a dumb terminal, which already uses an A5.

I really don't see apple making a complete transition to ARM unless ARM can prepare some high performance designs. PPC risc processors made sense because PPC was a decent amount faster than intel's x86. ARM on the other hand is all performance/watt and would never keep up at all, especially with apple going resolution happy with the macbooks.

RE: Very ambitious.
By 91TTZ on 11/6/2012 4:30:29 PM , Rating: 4
It wouldn't make financial sense for Apple to switch its consumer-side products to thin clients. Apple has historically made its money by selling consumers overpriced hardware that performed well. If they switched it over so that they sold thin clients, that means that those terminals could last a very long time (since the server is the computer doing all the processing) and consumers wouldn't need to buy the "next big thing" every year as they currently do.

At my old job, we used Winterms (thin clients) for years and years. There wasn't any reason to upgrade the terminals because all the changes happened at the server side. Apple does not want their hardware to be commoditised like that.

RE: Very ambitious.
By Jeffk464 on 11/6/2012 8:47:39 PM , Rating: 2
I'm pretty sure google already has a leg up on the dumb terminal concept. The new chromebook is based on ARM and is already a slick working cloud device.

RE: Very ambitious.
By ritualm on 11/6/2012 1:50:12 PM , Rating: 2
Political hot-air and maneuvering.

Apple can pull it off because it can always blame its users for its own products' shortcomings:

iPhone 4 deathgrip = You're holding it wrong!
iOS 6 maps = You're navigating it wrong!
iPhone 5 color shift = You're taking it wrong!
Retina MBP image retention = You're using it wrong!
Cellular data overages because iOS 6/iPhone 5 uses LTE even when WiFi is forced on = You're WiFi-ing it wrong!

Coupled with Apple's desire to make more money off its sheepish followers and fanboys, of course they can!

RE: Very ambitious.
By lightfoot on 11/6/2012 1:55:31 PM , Rating: 5
It also allows Apple to control the platform even more. No more of this "installing Windows in order to run applications purchased outside of iTunes" nonsense.

Apple must have at least 30% of the revenue from every piece of software running on its hardware! Don't forget, Apple owns the hardware, they only let you use it.

RE: Very ambitious.
By foolsgambit11 on 11/6/2012 8:13:51 PM , Rating: 1
Don't know if you noticed, but Windows runs on ARM these days.

RE: Very ambitious.
By cfaalm on 11/7/2012 12:57:02 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, RT does. You still cannot buy Windows RT anywhere, though.

RE: Very ambitious.
By tayb on 11/6/12, Rating: -1
RE: Very ambitious.
By ATrigo on 11/6/2012 3:43:19 PM , Rating: 4
The camera "problem" on the iPhone 5 isn't actually a problem in the sense that almost every "point and shoot" camera has this problem.

That's exactly what Apple wants people to think. Granted, all small "point and shoot" cameras will face light induced artifacts at some point... the difference is that the iphone 5 is overly sensitive to it where the iphone4 and other cameras are not. Apple simply made a bad design trade off.

RE: Very ambitious.
By amanojaku on 11/6/2012 3:52:00 PM , Rating: 5
Apple issued free bumper cases to iPhone 4 users before fixing the problem.
After weeks of denial and criticism.
Apple wrote an apology letter about iOS 6 maps
After days of silence and criticism.
The camera "problem" on the iPhone 5 isn't actually a problem in the sense that almost every "point and shoot" camera has this problem.
Color tint is not a problem that all point and shoot cameras have, or even most.
The other two aren't widespread problems and they've both been fixed.
Says you. Apple never releases numbers, and goes as far as to cover things up. The retina display issue was a worldwide problem for at least three months (June-August), so it was pretty big. As for WIFI, there were at least three issues with it (WIFI not working, cellular instead of WIFI, and lack of AES) and it affected enough people to be mentioned in every technical journal and web site. For a company that claims its closed approach means perfection, it sure ain't perfect.

RE: Very ambitious.
By tayb on 11/6/12, Rating: -1
RE: Very ambitious.
By someguy123 on 11/6/2012 6:05:57 PM , Rating: 2
I'm not sure consumer reports is biased but that article is not very convincing. They don't show any comparisons except the oddly purple iphone 4 image after claiming to have tested on a variety of devices.

iphone 5's problem is caused by the glass itself, regardless of overly bright light sources. certain angles just exaggerate the tint.

RE: Very ambitious.
By HoosierEngineer5 on 11/6/2012 4:30:59 PM , Rating: 2
"Coupled with Apple's desire to make more money off its sheepish followers and fanboys, of course they can! "

Quod erat demonstrandum.

RE: Very ambitious.
By NellyFromMA on 11/6/2012 2:38:54 PM , Rating: 2
Lol, MS did the exact same thing as a test by developing Win RT and experiementing with the desktop interface on it.

At first they thought simply recompiling for ARM would be great. They sure found out its not quite as simple as that though.

I applaud Apple for trying, but mostly because they are playing catchup on something thats already been tried and doesn't really work (for the purpose of replacing x86-64).

Very un-Apple. Good luck with that.

RE: Very ambitious.
By DanNeely on 11/6/2012 3:10:15 PM , Rating: 2
The problem is that (excluding .net apps) every 3rd party developer would also have to recompile for ARM as well (to include every 3rd party binary library they used); without that happening you'd have no clear way for consumers to know what apps would/not work on WOA. The result of that would (like every other compatibility issue windows has ever had) be blamed entirely on MS and be used to argue the Win8 was crap. Drawing a strict line in the sand is much safer.

Unless ARM gets to the point of being able to emulate x86 at near atom performance levels it's not going to happen.

RE: Very ambitious.
By Jeffk464 on 11/6/2012 8:49:57 PM , Rating: 2
Intel should be getting nervous if this trend continues they will be relegated to gaming PC's and high end business/government computing needs.

RE: Very ambitious.
By inperfectdarkness on 11/7/2012 3:42:18 AM , Rating: 2
It's also increcibly stupid. Apple benefitted most from switching to Intel architecture, which greatily benefitted Apple's interoperability with windows-based hardware (though not necessarily by direct action on Apple's part).

Switching to a different architecture framework--while the rest of the world chugs along on the stuff that makes windows work--will seriously hurt Apple; just like what happened in the 90's.

Can Apple do it? Sure. Should they do it? Not logically--but when does logic apply to Apple?

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