Apple is considering a future without Intel powering its line of Mac computers in favor of its own proprietary chip designs, according to an excellent report from Bloomberg. The company is concerned about Intel's commitment and ability to deliver processors with low power consumption and is also interested in the benefits of having iOS and OS X unified on one architecture.
Bloomberg sourced its story with three separate people, and we characterized it as an excellent report because it got the Apple-specific technologies and other factors right. Traditionally, mainstream reporters have often failed in that regard.
Be that as it may, let's look at the most pertinent issues right away:
1.) A move away from Intel isn't definite, it's a possibility.
2.) Even if such a move does take place, it would be several years out because...
3.) ...a number of technical hurdles would have to be overcome first. The most notable is making ARM processors powerful enough to handle the more demanding processing needs of high-end computer users.
4.) This fourth one is our point, rather than Bloomberg's, but it is quite salient—of course Apple has contingency plans in place to make such a move, and it would be shocking if the company didn't have a small team working on running OS X on ARM even now. Remember that Apple had what was then called Mac OS X running on Intel for years before it decided to make the change.
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The main concern from Apple, according to the report, is power consumption. Apple wants ever-thinner, ever-smaller computers, just as it does with its mobile devices. Apple has apparently doubted Intel's commitment to producing such chips, which is why it is working on its contingency plans.
This apparently came to a head in 2011 when Bob Mansfield, who then headed Apple's Mac hardware engineering, met with his Intel counterparts several times. He asked questions and expressed his doubt over Intel's willingness to focus on this area, and supposedly went so far as to pointedly tell Intel that his company was working on ARM-based plans.
The implicit threat was that if Intel didn't get its act together on this issue, Apple would just have to go its own route. We should also note that Bob Mansfield's current job is heading Technologies, a somewhat nebulous group within Apple that does include chip design.
Intel was at that point able to convince Mr. Mansfield, and by extension CEO Tim Cook, that it was serious about power consumption, and the folks at Apple figured they at least had a few years before a decision would be needed.
A very interesting revelation (to us) in the article is the fact that Bob Mansfield, the effective guardian of the Mac platform, has been championing a more unified user experience across the Mac and iOS platforms. He wants the two experiences to be more seamless, something that we have often referred to as the iOSification of OS X.
Bloomberg's source said that Craig Federighi, the new head of Mac hardware, is also "considered likely" to push for greater iOSification (our term) of OS X.
This is made harder by the reality that the two platforms run on different processors. Publicly, at least, some of iOS's key features don't run on Intel Macs. The most important such feature is Siri, though it's impossible to know what Apple has Siri doing in its own labs.
The same is true for the 700,000 iOS apps on the App Store. They'll run in emulation on Mac developer tools, but they don't run natively on Macs today.
Put all this together, and there are some important reasons for Apple to want to run its Macs on ARM processors of its own design. What's missing, of course, is the other definition of power. ARM is excellent on mobile devices because it uses very little electricity, but is powerful enough to handle demanding mobile tasks.
It is not, however, powerful enough to run heavy-duty Photoshop tasks, 3D rendering, effects rendering on flat movies, complex music production, or the kinds of computations needed for huge spreadsheets or serious science calculations.
For Apple to make the transition, it would have to solve this, something that will take time. Those of us who are Mac users and who don't live in a post-PC world where all we do is check email, browse the Web, and play Angry Birds can only hope that Apple will truly solve that before making such a move.
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