On Apple moving Mac from x86 to ARM

Blomberg is reporting that Apple is considering moving the Mac computer line off of Intel x86 CPUs to in-house developed ARM CPUs. I have my doubts.

I’m sure it is true that they are considering it, but that doesn’t mean it will be happening any time soon. They considered moving to Intel for the better part of a decade, on and off and they didn’t make their move until their old CPU choice, the PowerPC line, had fallen behind and showed no signs of recovering.

For the time being, Intel seems to be on the right track. No one offers a faster or more power-efficient desktop/laptop CPU. Intel was apparently slower than Apple would have liked in driving down power-consumption down or graphics performance up, but they seem to have changed their tune. They’ve accelerated their pace of GPU performance improvement, a move that some have attributed to Apple’s demands. They’ve also become increasingly serious about low-power chips for both mobile devices and “ultrabooks” (Windows version of the MacBook Air). Also, given that so much of their market these days are low-margin, low-price windows PCs, I’d think they’d be eager to have the opportunity to keep a customer who can afford to pay a premium to get the best Intel has to offer.

It is true that Apple does have its own in-house chip-design talent working on ARM CPUs, and it might make sense to leverage their efforts over more of Apple’s product line, but right now, Mac volumes are really a fraction of the iOS device volumes, so it isn’t clear it would be a big win, especially since their laptops and desktops currently occupy and performance and power-consumption envelope that is significantly different than iOS devices.

In the long-term though, I think it is pretty likely that Apple move off of Intel. I think that in many ways, the writing has been on the wall for Intel for a long time. Their competitive position has been eroding, and the pace is going to accelerate if they fail to get some major mobile-phone and/or tablet design-wins in the next year or so. It will be further hastened if high-performance ARM CPUs start putting pressure on their margins and volumes in the server-space.  At some point, Apple will have to switch horses, and if they time it just right, they might actually gain some competitive advantage by weakening competitors who are less-prepared and less able to abandon Intel.

I’ve never been great at estimating when the inevitable will finally come to pass, but I can’t imagine it will be less than 3 years before Apple would make such an announcement, and probably more like 4-6 before they have to.

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