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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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Apple ditching the professionals?
By Operandi on 11/6/2012 1:58:50 PM , Rating: 2
I have to wonder if this is just another sign of Apple ditching the content creation pro market in favor of the consumer content consumption market, iPhones, iPads. We’ve seen this with most recent version of Final Cut, and the lack of new Power Macs for quite some time.
If this is the trend Apple is following then it does make sense as they hardly need the power of Intel’s and AMD’s latest CPUs and ARM would do just fine. If however they want to keep playing in the pro and enthusiast market I’m not sure if ARM will ever match x86 in terms of raw performance.

RE: Apple ditching the professionals?
By ClownPuncher on 11/6/2012 2:16:57 PM , Rating: 3
Other than music, none of us have needed to do content creation on a Mac in years.

RE: Apple ditching the professionals?
By 91TTZ on 11/6/2012 4:34:59 PM , Rating: 2
You've never edited an image in Photoshop (or any other image processing software) or edited/encoded a movie you filmed?

RE: Apple ditching the professionals?
By croc on 11/7/2012 2:26:08 AM , Rating: 3
Does Photoshop even port for Mac's these days?

By retrospooty on 11/7/2012 9:24:54 AM , Rating: 2
"Does Photoshop even port for Mac's these days?"

What is a Mac ?

By bobsmith1492 on 11/7/2012 7:07:18 AM , Rating: 3
Photoshop has been primarily PC-based for years now.

By ClownPuncher on 11/7/2012 2:47:07 PM , Rating: 2
Funny. I used to do design work on a G5, because that's how long ago Mac's had any sort of advantage there. Now, with a much more powerful PC, I can get those tasks done much more efficiently.

RE: Apple ditching the professionals?
By CaedenV on 11/6/2012 3:26:26 PM , Rating: 3
That was my first thought when I first heard this rumor a few months ago... but then I started looking around. Creative departments in big companies (like P&G) are largely moved to PC, both of the local TV stations in town (local cable) have moved entirely to PC, nearly all of my friends I went to school with (went to school for audio and video post production) are using PC. The only people I know using mac are students, because it is required, and most of them have installed win7 on their macs because the adobe suite runs better on the PC side, and some of the old school veterans who will not likely be moving platforms any time soon because it would be painfully expensive to do so. But still, content creation is not the same world it was 10 years ago... or even 2 years ago. They are bleeding market share very quickly on this one front.

Apple gave up on content creators, or at least they are unsure of what to do with them. I think their devices will always be suficient for fun little stuff (like loading ready run, and other fun stuff like that), but in the end I think they are just going to say 'screw it' in the end and give up on the desktop market eventually.

By chemist1 on 11/6/2012 11:08:09 PM , Rating: 2
There is one additional group among whom Macs are very popular -- scientists, particularly physicists and chemists. [This, incidentally, counters the frequently-repeated myth that people just buy Macs for style. Hell, we generally don't care about style -- just look at how we dress!]

Based on my own experience, I think there are four key reasons for the popularity of Macs among scientists: (1) OSX offers a native Unix environment for development work; (2) OSX is significantly more powerful than Windows for very complex office productivity tasks (say, where you have ten programs open, with ten windows in each one, and need to navigate rapidly among them -- I find this easy on a Mac, and hopeless in Windows); (3) broadly speaking, OSX offers a more intuitive interface--for scientists, our computer is just a tool, and whatever enables us to most easily and quickly get the job done is what is preferred (our work is challenging enough; we don't need the software to provide additional challenge); and (4) historically, much less bother about security -- with responsible use of either a Mac or a PC you're not going to get a virus; but responsible use of a PC has generally required installation and background operation of antivirus software which (at least in the past) has been a PITA, while responsible use of a Mac has not.

From the above, it should be clear that scientists do a lot of content creation on their computers. Given this, I share the concern that Apple seems to be moving away from content creation and towards content consumption, since I think the former has been its great strength.

RE: Apple ditching the professionals?
By TakinYourPoints on 11/6/2012 3:43:02 PM , Rating: 2
Their focus away from first party support of professionals has been pretty steady over the last few years. Professionals made up a very large part of their income and userbase when I started using Macs about ten years ago. Now they are mainly servicing the mainstream, which is fine (and clearly way more profitable) except that they are devoting fewer and fewer resources to pros.

Third party support is obviously still there, but things like what they did to FCP and slower updates with their workstations makes it very clear where Apple's priorities currently are.

Either way, the rumor of them moving away from Intel comes up every few months. The transition from x86 to ARM also seems like it would be much more difficult than the one from PPC to x86, so we'll see if it even happens. It does seems believable on a very long timeframe given that efficiency is such a high priority for Apple, and the fact that they are now designing their own mobile SoCs. It'll all come down to if it is worth it. If there's one thing Intel has proven themselves excellent at, it is having one of the best tech roadmaps on the desktop and laptop side.

By Master Kenobi on 11/6/2012 4:35:54 PM , Rating: 2
Agreed. Intel knows exactly what they are doing and honestly it was a good move on Apple's part to switch to them originally. I can understand them wanting to bring that piece in house, but the reality is they will never be able to outgun the biggest gun in town. Intel reigns supreme in the area of process manufacturing and their chip designs are second to none in the performance realm. If Apple wanted to bring that all in house, they need to get with TSMC or someone else to get their designs mass produced. Intel is typically a process node and a half ahead of anyone else in the industry at any given time and they devote a huge chunk of money into R&D to maintain that.

I think the biggest problem for Apple at that point would be phones and tablets using Intel chips and either Windows or Android and in performance benchmarks getting completely spanked because their chips just can't handle it.

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