By Harry McCracken | Friday, May 6, 2011 at 3:30 pm
A Web site with the wonderful name SemiAccurate is reporting that it’s a “done deal” that Apple will dump Intel chips for ones based on the ARM architecture used in most smartphones and tablets, including the iPhone and iPad–and it’ll do it “as soon as possible.” I tend to be skeptical about rumors of great big news that come from not-so-well-known sites. But I’m nowhere near as skeptical as VentureBeat’s Devindra Hardawar:
Seems to me that there are several factors that make a Mac move to ARM plausible, or least very far from unthinkable…
1) We know for a fact that Apple likes to be as deeply involved in the technology inside its devices as possible–that’s why it uses custom processors based on ARM’s technology inside the iPhone and iPad. Intel’s upcoming chips based on “3D” technology sound neat, but they’ll always be Intel chips, not Apple chips.
2) By building its own custom ARM-based chips, it’s at least possible that Apple could make a great leap forward in laptop battery life compared to the rest of the industry. (The iPad already has strikingly better battery performance than other tablets based on non-custom ARM processors.)
3) OS X already runs magnificently on ARM chips–in the form of iOS, which is a variant of OS X as it runs on Macs, not an unrelated operating system. Bringing full-blooded OS X to ARM wouldn’t be an entirely new challenge.
4) Apple has already said it plans to make future Macs more like the iPad. Wouldn’t basing them on the same chips help?
5) Mightn’t the company prefer to build software for one chip platform (ARM) rather than two (ARM and Intel)?
There’s a sixth reason why ARM Macs feel like a real possibility to me–and that’s history. Especially the history of an uncannily similar rumor from a little under six years ago.
On May 23th, 2005, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple was considering moving from IBM’s PowerPC chips to Intel ones. The experts quickly chimed in, and said that this rumor was…well, wrong. Or at least almost certainly wrong.
A couple of weeks later, both the Journal and Cnet News.com reported as fact that Apple was about to announce at its WWDC event that it was moving to Intel. This time, with two respected news sources reporting that it was definitively going to happen, the response from multiple experts was still that the idea was far-fetched.
Even Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, who has a better track record of channeling Apple’s thought process than any outsider, couldn’t figure out how to make it make sense.
And then the far-fetched, unlikely, unthinkable scenario turned out to be true:
In other words, rational analysis by knowledgable people turned out to be a lousy way of determining whether Apple was going to bet the Mac platform on a huge transition to a new architecture. Actually, rational analysis by knowledgable people almost always seems to be a lousy way of predicting what Apple is going to do. I’m keeping that in mind as I read about the ARM scuttlebutt, and think about it.
Footnote: After the Apple-Intel news became official, some analysts still thought it made no sense;:
While we can see why moving to a dual architecture approach may bring some benefits, a wholesale move away from the IBM chips would be extremely foolish. Intel is not the ‘de-facto leader in processor design’ that it was a few years ago; in the recent past, Intel has been out-innovated by both AMD (with a better approach to 64-bit computing) and IBM (with a better long-term strategy around multicore chips.
You be the judge of whether Apple knew what it was doing in 2005–and might know what it’s doing in 2011 if it transitions Macs to ARM processors.