Apple reportedly plans ARM shift for laptops
'Done deal', apparently
Apple may - and we emphasis that last word - have decided to transition its laptops from Intel processors to ARM-based CPUs
Intel certainly has a fight on its hands in the media tablet market, currently dominated by ARM chippery, but does it need to worry about the laptop space too? It will if the allegation about Apple, made by chip-centric site Semi Accurate, proves to be correct.
The whispers SA has heard have it that ARM's in-train shift to 64-bit processing will see Apple, already shipping millions of ARM-based devices in the form of iPods, iPhones, iPads and the occasional Apple TV, move its laptops to ARM too.
Speaking of the Apple TV, that's one device that has already made such a transition from the first-generation model's Intel processor to the latest version's Apple A4.
Users don't see any difference. The UI is the same, and no less responsive. The new model is smaller, but that's as much because it lacks its predecessor's hard drive than any extra power efficiency on the part of the A4 - the first Apple TV's Intel chip wasn't exactly a monster.
Moving a consumer electronics product from Intel to ARM makes sense: Apple TV doesn't have the multi-tasking and performance requirements a laptop does. And, in any case, the shift was pragmatic: Apple now needs to maintain only two OSes - Mac OS X and iOS - rather than three, the third being the past-its-prime, tweaked version of OS X that the first Apple TV ran.
Such pragmatism may well see Apple bringing OS X and iOS into closer harmony, at least from a functional perspective. The next OS X, Lion, brings over a heap of features and UI methodologies from iOS, though as any OS X and iOS programmer will tell you, OS X is way more feature-filled than its mobile sibling.
For all the many similarities in the operating systems' APIs, there are many differences, even between directly comparable classes and methods. Full harmonisation of the two operating systems won't be easy.
It's unlikely then that a ARM-based MacBook - most likely the MacBook Air series, we'd say - will run iOS, but an ARM-compiled version of OS X is certainly not out of the question.
What is open to discussion is whether ARM CPUs, even the 64-bit jobs coming, according to SA, in the late 2012/early 2013 timeframe, will be up to the task of powering performance-oriented machines.
ARM muscles in
If not ARM then certainly the chip makers who license its architecture are trying to show that it is. And analysts are increasingly considering the notion that ARM will cut into Intel's market share, even past the walls of the the mobile arena.
IDC reckons ARM will have a 13 per cent share of the PC processor market by 2015. That's not so very far behind what AMD has now. Perhaps IDC too has heard the same whispers as SA.
It's hard, right now, to conceive of a 15in MacBook Pro - or the 27in iMac, for that matter, since it too is based on mobile Intel technology - getting the same performance out of an ARM chip circa 2013 as it would from an Intel CPU from the same year.
But the Air line is less performance dependent - it's one element buyers are willing to trade for the sheer bloody portability of the Air's design, though the machine is no slouch - and could provide Apple will a means to test such a shift in processor architcture.
But then it either has to convert the range into iOS machines, to run existing apps, or develop yet another emulator to allow new Air buyers to run their existing OS X apps. Forcing them to re-buy new, ARM-compiled versions of apps seems a very unlikely strategy.
Is that really worth the financial benefits of being able to bulk-buy even more ARM processors, especially when Apple will still be buying chips from Intel? Just for superior battery life, which you can get by underclocking? Or for the unknown - and possibly non-existent - benefits of combining iOS and OS X, two operating systems that may share a common core but have been designed for very different roles?
Especially when Intel would bend over backwards to encourage Apple to stick with x86.
OS X will become more iOS like, and iOS will gain OS X features it currently lacks. The two operating systems will harmonise. But that doesn't mandate their merger or, if that does happen, guarantee Apple can rely on one processor architecture spanning media players, phones, tablets, netbooks, notebooks and desktops.
Just as Intel has yet to prove its x86 chips can match ARM for power efficiency in mobile devices, ARM has yet to show it can match Intel - and AMD - chips for sheer compute performance. Until it does, it's hard to imagine Apple moving MacBook Pros, iMacs and Mac Pros away from Intel. ®