November 7, 2012

On Apple’s Move To ARM

On Monday, Bloomberg reached into the depths of the Apple Rumor Abyss, dragging out a piece of speculation which has had a few turns in the rumor mill, but not much more. Apple has always strived to be a fiercely independent company, announcing partnerships only when partnerships can’t be avoided. For instance, before 2005, Apple used their own processors in their Macs, making their hardware a completely closed environment, more so than it is today. Then, they famously made the switch to Intel chips, opening up further development opportunities for app developers as well as removing one of the key reasons to not choose a Mac: They can’t run Windows.

While this was a smart move on their part, one that has helped propel the Mac, one can’t help but think Apple would rather go back to the good old days where they were making their own chips.

According to the Bloomberg piece, Apple could return to these days in the next few years, building out their own ARM chips to power their Macs.

Apple already uses the ARM architecture, of course. These chips, the A4, A5, A5x, A6 and now, A6X, power many iPads, iPhones and even the iPod Touch. These ARM chips are well-suited for mobile applications because they are able to deliver the right amount of speed with the right amount of power efficiency. After all, the benefits of a mobile device are severely lessened if the device can’t be away from a charger for less than 6 hours.

The Bloomberg piece also cites a Gartner analyst who suggests that a move away from Intel could start a chain reaction, crippling Intel’s business.

“Apple is a trendsetter, and once they did their own chip many others may pursue a similar path,” posited Sergis Mushell.

“If mobility is more important than functionality, then we will have a completely different environment than we are dealing with today.”

This isn’t the first time this rumor has popped up, though it’s never been taken too seriously. It’s even been dismissed a time or two.

Another analyst, Shaw Wu with Sterne Agee, wrote a note to investors saying he believes this move is “inevitable,” though it will take some time to shift the Mac OS X platform over to a new architecture.

The shift from Intel to ARM is indeed possible and even plausible, considering the potential benefits: Better power management, a more unified experience between iOS and Mac OS X, and the cost benefits to Apple for designing their own chips.

However, just as Wu and others have suggested, this move, should it occur, is years away. Rumors from last year about this change suggested the same thing: The roadmaps of the 2 processors aren’t equally matched. Intel has more to offer in terms of speed while ARM has more to offer in terms of power efficiency. While it would be nice to use a MacBook Pro with 10 or more hours of real life battery life, such a computer would effectively nullify the reason to use a laptop as opposed to using an iPad. Without the added speed and functionality, a laptop becomes far less attractive.

Of course, either one of these chips could be made to take on the qualities of one other. Another analyst, Nathan Brookwood, spoke with All Things D and said: “There’s no reason that an Intel chip couldn’t arbitrarily be made to have the same power efficiency as an ARM chip. There’s also no reason that an ARM chip couldn’t be faster with the right hardware resources brought to bear.”

It’s all possible, says Brookwood, and it all depends on how these chips are implemented. Any iOS device is proof positive that the marriage of hardware and software can be optimized to get the best out of one another. Therefore, an ARM chip written for Mac OS X would no doubt outperform an ARM on any other laptop implementation. However, given where ARM, Apple and Intel currently stand, it’s likely this sort of change, if it were to happen, is at least a few years away.

Image Credit: Photos.com

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