Apple Mulls Dropping Intel for Macs

| Analysis

Intel Inside...Not!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.

Powered by Intel

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.

iOSification

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.

Power

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.

Image made with help from Shutterstock.

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Comments

mrmwebmax

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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.

Amen. Let’s hope Apple never makes the (IMHO) horrific mistake of Microsoft in trying to create an OSX in two versions: mobile (ARM), and desktop (Intel), where both can run Angry Birds, but only Desktop can run Photoshop. I live and breath by Adobe Creative Suite, and don’t want to lose the ability to do so on my Macs because of a chip switch.

Then again, I survived the switch from OS 9 to OSX, and the switch from PPC to Intel. If any company can pull off such a major platform paradigm shift, it is Apple. Time will tell. Just don’t leave your creative professionals behind, Apple!

geoduck

Some of us have to have virtualization. If they can come up with an ARM that will allow for that, fine IDGAD. If this is another instance where they turn away from the Pro user I’m not going to be happy.

That of course is assuming this is not some wild rumor that won’t pan out

furbies

Being able to run an iOS app on my desktop would be cool, but I’d hate the idea of the OS X being dumbed down a la iOS.

And if Apple did switch to ARM what would happen to Parallels & VirtualBox etc ? We waited years to get the ability to run virtual machines without the woeful (& totally crappy) performance hit.

And personally, I’d rather my desktop Mac put on a little weight and run well, than have a too thin and slightly anaemic Mac thanks.

Paul Goodwin

Let’s hope that Intel’s focus keeps Apple happy. You can run Windows software on a Mac today if you need to. That would seem to be much tougher to do on a different processor than what Windows is running on in the Windows world. Software investment is a major factor in picking a new platform. Today’s Macs are unique in their ability to run Windows and Mac software; you can’t buy another machine (that I know of) that will do that. Take that advantage away, and I see a significant negative impact on future Mac sales in a market that is already tough and getting tougher.

I’d rather see the OS X-I fiction of iOS and I’m an iPad lover. iOSification of OS X seems to be backwards to me.

diverreb

Does switching from Intel negate the Native Windows option?  Would you still be able to boot into windows or would you need Fusion/Virtual PC?  Just curios.

ibuck

furbies: “Being able to run an iOS app on my desktop would be cool, but I’d hate the idea of the OS X being dumbed down a la iOS.”

Agreed. Both the approaches by Apple and Microsoft seem flawed to me based on current and foreseeable technology. Trying to dumb down Mac OS software to run on speed- and power-challenged devices seems as off the mark as MS trying to run Windows apps on tablets (Surface) or other mobile devices.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

What became Mac OS X actually ran on Intel first. Developer previews of Rhapsody were x86 only.

daemon

Please, please, please, please let this be true and not just a rumour!

Bring back the days of the 68000 Mac!

Michael Wheeler

I’m sure Apple is smart enough to decide what’s good for Apple but if they switch away from Intel I suspect corporate toleration of Macs in the workplace will take a serious hit. I’d also venture to say that even though I’ve been a Mac owner and proponent since the original Mac in 1984 that I would not be buying any new Macs. I suspect that would eventually lead me to the adoption of Android devices later on down the road because I would have lost the advantage of being a “total Apple shop” at home. Apple’s stuff generally works great together but leaving the Mac platform would erase that advantage. I know Apple is putting its money in the cloud for future “i” device communication and co-operation but every Tom, Dick, and Harry will be doing the same thing with their brand so I see no real Apple advantage there.

I can only comment on my feelings and professional IT opinion. I’ll have to leave it up to Apple to decide what’s best for them. Losing ground in IT may not be a concern for them as they are so large in the consumer space but I’d still worry about the ripples from IT in colleges, universities, and businesses spreading out to affect the buying decisions of individuals later on down the road.

Lee Dronick

Does not Windows run on chips other than Intel? If so Apple could build in Windows compatibility into their chip.

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Regan

“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.” -

Not true at all.

The iOS ‘emulator’ is not an emulator at all, it is a *simulator* - it does not run ARM code through emulation, it runs native x86 code. So all these iOS apps are already compiled to native x86 code every time us developers run them on the simulator.

jbruni

Heh, maybe Apple will look at the Motorola 88000 again.

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