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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 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.

"It looks like the iPhone 4 might be their Vista, and I'm okay with that." -- Microsoft COO Kevin Turner

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