Apple Eyes Dumping Intel For ARM

Is Apple serious about shifting OS X and its computers from Intel's x86 architecture to ARM-based chips? Or is it just trying to win concessions from Intel?

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

November 6, 2012

4 Min Read

Intel's Tech Roadmap: Visual Tour

Intel's Tech Roadmap: Visual Tour

Intel's Tech Roadmap: Visual Tour (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Apple is reportedly investigating a transition away from Intel's x86 chips to ARM-based processors in its OS X product line.

Citing three unnamed sources, Bloomberg said Apple engineers are preparing for a transition to ARM chips, though the company's commitment to Intel hardware makes the shift unlikely in the next few years.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment. The company's iOS devices like the iPad already run on Apple-designed ARM silicon.

Apple might want to transition its OS X products from Intel's x86 architecture to ARM chips because its ARM-based mobile devices now generate most of its revenue, and because maintaining software compatibility with a single chip architecture would take less effort than supporting two chipsets.

Up until about five years ago, computational power was the primary selling point for computers. That worked out well for Intel, which has produced, and continues to produce, some of the fastest chips for desktop computers. Such chips generate significant heat and use a lot of power when running computationally intensive tasks.

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But as the market for mobile computing devices has taken off, and the market for desktop computers has stalled, hardware manufacturers have been looking at chip designs that feature low power consumption and don't generate much heat -- consumers tend to not want phones that burn through a battery in an hour or require a fan for cooling.

ARM chips have tended to be more power-efficient than their Intel counterparts. Though Intel is working hard to reverse that trend, Apple made its commitment to ARM technology clear when it bought chip marker Intrinsity in 2010. The company's desktop and notebook computers, however, continue rely on Intel chips.

Carlos Icaza, CEO of Lanica, a maker of mobile game development software, said in a phone interview that it would make sense for Apple to shift entirely to ARM chips given the company's investment in chip-making technology. "They need to move their entire system to a single base chipset, especially for lower-end laptops so they can emit less heat," he said.

Speculation that Apple may be ready to go all-in with ARM is not new, but ARM's announcement last month that its forthcoming Cortex-A57 and Cortex-A53 chips will support 64-bit computing means that Apple could actually adapt its 64-bit OS X to run on ARM hardware.

"The timing is good since last week ARM had its technical conference," said IDC analyst Shane Rau in a phone interview. ARM's 64-bit designs "make the idea of using ARM processors more compelling in general purpose computing spaces," he said.

Rau cautions that making that transition would be "a herculean effort and it would take a lot of time."

There's also the possibility that Apple allowed people in the company to leak word that it is considering an ARM transition to further its negotiations with Intel. Rau notes that it might be in Apple's interest to have "this discussion out in the marketplace, to keep Intel on its toes."

A former Apple executive who asked not to be named shares this view. "It's almost mandatory for Apple to pursue [moving to ARM chips] because it's a way to keep a little bit of pressure on Intel, which is in effect Apple's sole supplier," the executive said.

The problem, the executive said, is that OS X is much hungrier for computing power than iOS. iOS has been optimized to conserve battery power and relies on a smaller code base. This involves a number of trade-offs, such as the way that multitasking is implemented. OS X would probably have to be made much more efficient to run well on ARM hardware.

Apple has successfully managed a major architectural transition before, and doing so again makes sense given the company's business model. As a seller of computer hardware, Apple has an interest in selling customers new devices as often as possible. Tying a future OS X release to a new line of ARM-based machines would encourage customers to purchase both software and hardware to maintain compatibility.

If Apple were to push iOS and OS X closer together and begin migrating its desktop and notebook computers to ARM chips, the company would probably announce its plan at its 2013 Worldwide Developer Conference. Were that to happen, ARM-based MacBook Airs or MacBook Pros might be released toward the end of 2013.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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