ARM Powered Macs? Macintel To Follow 68k And PowerPC To Orphan Status?

Former Apple executive turned pundit Jean-Louis Gassée says last year when Apple released its 64-bit A7 processor, he dismissed speculation that this could portend a switch away from Intel chips for the Macintosh line for a homegrown “desktop-class” chip. Now he says he’s not so sure.

Mr. Gasseé cites blogger Matt Richman who back in 2011predicted “I don’t know exactly when, but sooner or later, Macs will run on Apple-designed ARM chips.”

Why would Apple risk taking what some think would be a suicidal step? In a word: “Cost.”

Metrics cited by Mr. Gasseé indicate that Intel charges $378 for the i7 chip in the high-end 15 inch MacBook Pro, and the dual-coree i7 chip in the low-end 15 inch MacBook Pro probably somewhere around $300, so if Apple were to put ARM-based SoCs in Macs, overhead costs would decline dramatically, and when you’re talking some 18-20 million Macs sold annually, that adds up to serious money.

There’s also the matter of Intel having a whip hand when it comes to pricing and supply of X86 silicon, for example the current delay in getting the new 22 nanometer technology Broadwell CPUs in shape to ship. He cites Richman quoting Steve Jobs’s observation: “I’ve always wanted to own and control the primary technology in everything we do,” noting that Apple’s drive to own “all layers of the stack” continues unabated years after Steve’s passing.

Mr. Gasseé notes that ARM-based processors like Apple’s A-series SoCs, are simpler and cost less to make than X86 chips, and their prices are held down by fierce competition in the mobile device sector, where the constraints of the Wintel monopoly don’t apply.

Wintel x86 CPUs chips’ development roots reach back to the 8086 processor introduced in 1978 – itself a backward-compatible extension of the 8088, Gasseé observes, which means that they carry an accretion of excess baggage that requires them to contain more transistors than an equivalent ARM-based chip, and thus consume more power and generate more heat.

And Mr. Gasseé now says it looks like he was mistaken when he contended last year that an A-chip couldn’t power a high-end Mac, reasoning that the team responsible for creating the most advanced smartphone/tablet processor should face no insurmountable impediment to designing a 3GHz A10 variant optimized for “desktop-class” applications.

He observes that Mac unit sales were up 18% in June year-over-year, and, Mac revenue ($5.5B) is still not far short of the iPad’s $5.9B. And even powered by Intel silicon, a 128GB 11” MacBook Air sells for $899 while a 128GB iPad Air is only $100 less, inviting speculation about the cost, battery life, and size of an A10-powered MacBook Air.

A provocative thought, but presumably ARM based Macs would lose the ability to run the Windows OS natively. And while Windows is no longer the hegemonic force it once was in the IT world, it’s still a force to be reckoned with, especially with Apple’s recent pursuit of hardware sales in the enterprise.

OTOH, Apple’s enterprise push — at least the IBM partnership part of it, is focused mainly on iOS devices……

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