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Summary:

Yet another report indicates that Apple might be aiming to move away from Intel chips in its Mac lineup. Bloomberg says the company wants to get its mobile and PC products on the same chip architecture. Here’s why that could actually happen.

Apple WWDC 2012 MacBook Pro Retina Display motherboard 2
photo: Om Malik

Is Apple ready to dump Intel chips in the Mac? Not quite yet, but perhaps in the next few years, Bloomberg reported Monday afternoon. The report says that Apple is looking to use its own chips, like the ARM-based ones that power iOS devices, for future laptops and eventually get all of its devices on the same chip architecture. This same rumor pops up every now and again, but this time there are both technological shifts and structural changes in Apple’s management that make this possibility more real than ever.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But here’s why it makes sense that Apple is looking into this:

  • Apple is hungry for fast, low-power chips, and Intel isn’t leading in this area. While Apple has been using ARM-based chips in its small, thin iOS devices, the company has increasingly been making its laptops smaller and thinner too. Mobility and longer battery life are key concerns for Apple when it designs Mac notebooks, and ironically enough, were the main reasons Apple switched to Intel’s chips back in 2005: the older PowerPC chips simply weren’t as mobile-friendly as Intel’s designs.
  • Apple’s been buying up its own chip design firms. The Bloomberg report cites two unnamed sources who say that it’s aiming to use those chips for more than just mobile devices and “a shift to its own designs is inevitable as the features of mobile devices and PCs become more similar.”
  • Apple has already built its own CPU core. It’s the A6 that’s inside the iPhone 5, released in September.
  • SVP of Technologies Bob Mansfield is now in charge of his own division that governs chip research at Apple. Recently ousted executive Scott Forstall was in charge of the team designing mobile chips at Apple. With him gone, Mansfield, who used to run the Mac hardware engineering group, will be able to influence how mobile chip designers at Apple spend their time.
  • It’s in line with Apple and CEO Tim Cook’s core philosophy. The company aims to own the all the technology in its products: from the hardware inside and out, to the software, and the method for putting content onto these devices. It’s not quite there yet — Apple still sources plenty of components from third-party vendors — but it’s been moving in this direction for a long time. The thinking is that it allows Apple to (ideally) guarantee the quality of the product and ensure that all parts work together seamlessly.

A switch away from buying computer chips from the world’s largest supplier of them is not going to happen right away, if at all. The timeline mentioned in the report was after 2017. Plus, there are lots of ramifications that Apple needs to think through beyond simply the hardware: the software that people currently use on their Macs isn’t built for ARM-based chips.

  1. The big question is who is going to Fab Apple chips?

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  2. Patrick Sullivan Monday, November 5, 2012

    Or, this could be a clever way to force Intel to start making lower power designs

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  3. This theory is a few years old (so nothing new at all) and the main driver is the need to unify the OSes, more than anything else.
    One major thing that is being ignored is that Apple doesn’t care much about Macs anymore.It’s pretty low volume and the future of this category is not all that bright.A transition could be possible as early as 2014 but it remains to be seen is they believe the investment is worth it or if they delay it and if that delay makes it irrelevant.
    Tim Cook seems more focused on tablets anyway (just between us he’s wrong there since tablets are a stop-gap device that will be gone as soon as the screen tech evolves).

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  4. People seems to forget that before 2004 (aprox) every Apple Mac came with their own in-house processor (more powerful and less power consuming than Intel at the time), since 2004 they opted to go the Intel way just because of the popularity and that the in-house processor was less compatible with popular PC software because the big names didn’t want to change the functions in their software so it worked for the Mac OS and processor and since the Mac wasn’t popular for non tech people every software was build for Intel and Microsoft OS (Windows). That’s why Apple changed to Intel after that but now they are just going back to making their more powerful and power efficient in-house chips again. Hope everything goes the way it should since now they have more popularity than in the 90’s.

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    1. Thanks. same thoughts here.

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  5. There is no doubt that Apple will transition its desktop computing to the ARM processor.

    Apple is the master of transitioning from one platform to another. Motorola 68000 -> PowerPC > Intel > ARM. Apple will no doubt develop an emulator to handle legacy OS X apps.

    The whole world is going ARM, from the smallest devices to the largest data centers. Apple will develop a new ARM processor with many more cores than you’d find in a processor optimised for phones.

    Processor development always accelerates where the money is. Apple found out in 2005 when its IBM-made Power PC processors were late getting out the door, because even though the IBM processor was a superior architecture, at the time the money was behind Intel, which could bring its product quicker to market.

    Now the money is going to dry up for the development of future Intel x86 processors, causing x86 revision cadence to slow down. That will further hasten the world’s transition to ARM for all uses.

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  6. The new google chromebook laptops have ARM now, not Intel, so the trend has already started

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  7. To protect their IP Apple should make their own CPUs.

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