updated 02:40 pm EDT, Fri May 6, 2011
We examine why Apple may not go ARM for Macs
One rumor floating online late Thursday has contended that Apple would switch to ARM for the MacBook line. The claim from unnamed sources for SemiAccurate would have Apple wait until at least mid-2013 to use the first 64-bit ARM processors, like NVIDIA's Project Denver, and was supposedly talking to TSMC and others to get chip production. We have reason to doubt why this would come to pass, and we expect Apple to stay on Intel for quite some time.
The first and most direct problem is simply the risk of forking product roadmaps. Why would Apple have its notebooks using ARM but leave all its desktops -- the Mac mini, iMac, and Mac Pro -- running Intel chips? The company could implement universal binaries like it did with the Intel transition, but if this wasn't part of a full-scale transition to ARM, developers would have to perpetually test two code bases to support all Macs. Even universal binaries would still introduce problems unique to one platform or the other.
Moreover, Steve Jobs and other Apple executives have famously criticized Android fragmentation. It would be counter-intuitive, not to mention hypocritical, to induce that on the Mac. Any ARM transition would likely be all or nothing.
Questions loom, too, about why Apple would even need to transition away. It's true the company values battery life and mobility, and is often determined to bring as much development in-house as possible. However, its situation isn't the same as it was when the company detailed plans to move from PowerPC to Intel in 2005. That transition was virtually forced by decisions by IBM and Motorola to slow down and eventually drop mainstream processors.
At last check, Apple was dramatically outpacing the market in sales growth by using mostly off-the-shelf Intel processors. Expanding its processor design team and reorienting its entire computer lineup would not only be expensive, but unnecessary. It could even be damaging by reducing the number of buyers switching away: while Windows 8 will use ARM, most versions of Windows and its apps on the market in 2013 will still need an Intel architecture.
And, simply put, the timing of the rumor leaves much room for error. Very few people at or partnering with Apple have knowledge of what the company is planning two or more years away. The company is at times legendary for its secrecy; leaking a long-term plan, especially for something as fundamental as a partial platform switch, is rare if not non-existent.
We never want to completely rule out claims that aren't completely implausible, and Apple has repeatedly talked about going "back to the Mac" with features from iOS. It's also a company that likes to reinvent its lineup even when doing well; the iPod nano taking over from the iPod mini is a classic example. Even two to three years from now, however, there would be very few incentives for Apple to switch to ARM and more to stay with Intel.