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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: 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.

"I modded down, down, down, and the flames went higher." -- Sven Olsen

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