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Would Apple Dump x86 for ARM?

Today’s fun tech rumor: Apple is planning on ditching Intel as the supplier of the processors for their laptop and desktop products. Does this make sense? Let’s look at the pros and cons of such a decision.

Advantages of Switching to ARM

Grand Unification Theory

Apple currently has a major divide in their products. The “iOS” line runs on ARM processors. This includes the iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, and AppleTV. The “OSX” line runs on Intel x86 processors. That’s the Macbook/MBP, Xserve, and whatever they call their desktop line these days. Apple may feel that its not worth supporting two separate operating systems, and since the momentum is behind iOS, they might want to squash OSX. Alternatively, they might want to keep both operating systems and move OSX to ARM, although the advantages of such a move are a bit more subtle.

I think it’s worth noting that “access to iOS apps” is not really an added advantage of such a move. Apple requires iOS apps to be written in ObjectiveC, which can already be compiled for OSX if desired. However if they did run iOS on something like a Macbook Pro, maybe someone who owns a PC and an iPhone might be more inclined to switch to an iOS computer.

Power Savings

ARM processors offer better performance per watt than x86 processors, which is what makes them so popular in mobile devices. Placing an ARM processor in the MBP could increase its battery life.

Making it In-House

Apple owns a design team that creates its own ARM processors, such as the A4 and A5. Although it must pay to license the ARM architecture, it is almost certainly much less than it pays to buy processors from Intel. Using their own processors could be a major cost reduction.

Disadvantages of Switching to ARM

Performance

Although ARM architectures offer better performance per watt, the absolute performance of x86 processors is significantly higher. Switching to ARM would mean that Apple’s laptops and desktops would not offer near comparable performance to PCs on CPU-limited applications. That said, it’s worth thinking about how much that might matter to Apple customers. Some of the biggest categories of CPU-hungry applications are Games, Multimedia, and Scientific. Games are already scarce on OSX (although Bootcamp users may still play a lot of games). Scientific and Engineering apps generally are not offered on OSX (although, again Bootcamp and Virtual Machine users may still use them). Many multimedia apps are largely accelerated by GPUs these days, so the CPU may become less important.

Legacy Software

Remember when Apple switched from PowerPC to Intel? None of the old PPC software worked anymore - or, rather, you could get it running in an emulator if you were willing to suffer a performance hit. That was when Apple was moving to a faster architecture; if they moved to a slower processor, the performance hit would be much larger.

Bye Bye Bootcamp?

Although it is true that Microsoft has announced an ARM-compatible version of Windows and there is ARM support in Linux, most of the applications that Apple owners use Bootcamp for are unlikely to make the jump to ARM any time soon.

Conclusion

There are strong advantages and disadvantages of moving to ARM. The balance mainly depends on what market Apple wants to focus on. Moving away from x86 would definitely be a blow to the elusive “Power User” who would have to deal with the annoyances of running legacy software, the loss of the ability to play games via Bootcamp, and the reduction in processing power. On the other hand, if Apple thinks that the profits are in converting its mobile users, then it may be willing to lose the power users if it can coax the iPhone and iPad users to buy an iOS-powered laptop with better battery life and lower cost to build. My gut feeling is “too soon”, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it 5 years down the road.

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