updated 05:55 am EST, Tue February 7, 2012
Apple intern details Apple's experiments with ARM
A paper written by a former Apple intern, and now Core OS engineer, has detailed Apple's attempts at getting a full version of Mac OS X to boot on an ARM processor, reports iMore. Initially subject to an embargo, but just recently published, the paper was written as part of a Bachelor degree thesis in 2010 by Tristan Schapp. It details the technical aspects and challenges associated with getting Darwin, which underpins OS X, to work effectively on the ARM architecture.
The publication of the thesis confirms that Apple has indeed been experimenting with the various ways in which it could leverage ARM architecture in its product line. However, at the same time, it does not necessarily point to Apple introducing any MacBook or desktop products running on ARM processors. Just in the past week, a Citigroup analyst Richard Gardner, met with Apple CEO Tim Cook and CFO Peter Oppenheimer and raised the question about whether Apple would indeed launch a MacBook Air powered by an ARM-based processor. Gardner says that he walked away from the meeting with the impression that "Apple feels [the] iPad satisfies -- or will soon satisfy -- the needs of those who might have been interested in such a product."
Rumors first surfaced that Apple was testing an A5-based MacBook Air back in May last year. At the time it was suggested that at the least, Apple was merely testing the concept. Whether Apple was testing an ARM-based version of the Air running a full version of Mac OS X, or whether it was running a variation of iOS tailored for a notebook was not clear at the time. Apple has thus far been inclined bring iOS back to the Mac platform, but it has not given away its hand as to whether it ultimately aims to unify the two related, but still technically different, platforms. One major impediment to running a full version of Mac OS X on ARM in a MacBook Air, even if feasible, would be its inability to support Apple's newly implemented Thunderbolt IO.
Then in August, a fresh rumor surfaced suggesting that Apple was prepping a new Mac line that was expected to be "absolutely different from current products." At the time, it was thought that this could indeed be a MacBook Air line fitted with ARM-based processors. Microsoft's decision to release a version of Windows 8 that will boot on ARM-based processors has also further fueled speculation that Apple might do likewise. However, unless Apple has been secretly reworking a fully-touch optimized version of Mac OS X, in the same way that Windows 8 has been touch and tablet optimized, it again seems unlikely that it will pursue this path.
An example of whether there is even a compelling necessity to do so has been the runaway success of the iPad, running its lightweight mobile OS. It has defied the critics who derided it for being incapable of carrying out all the tasks of a regular computer. Despite this, what it does, rather than what it doesn't, seems to have been convincing enough that Apple may not need to further pursue a full version of Mac OS X on ARM to counter any potential threat from Windows 8.