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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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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.

"Well, there may be a reason why they call them 'Mac' trucks! Windows machines will not be trucks." -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

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