ARM Based Macs

The British publication SemiAccurate has set off a firestorm of discussions based on a simple rumor, Apple is going to dump Intel and move their Mac hardware to ARM processors like the iPad/iPhone. So let’s break this rumor down.

1. Despite not having seen the hardware, MoD is 100% sure that Apple has prototypes of ARM based Macs running OS X Lion. Apple had Intel Macs running for several years before the actual migration to Intel. OS X allows for these kinds of migrations, it’s one of the huge advantages of the Kernel/Core OS. In addition, iOS is already on ARM and shares some key operating system heritage with OS X. Under Jobs Apple is never again going to find itself in mess of the early 2000s stuck on the PowerPC platform that does not have the mobile processors needed to move the Mac platform forward. The ARM Mac is a skunk works project waiting for a reason to exist. In addition, these type projects provide Apple with negotiating power with Intel. Intel is already facing Microsoft Windows 8 being released for ARM.

2. When will this black project see the light of day? When ARM’s mobile processors completely surpass Intel’s offerings from a price/performance/energy use standpoint. SemiAccurate is promoting 2013 as the date that this may occur. It’s sounds possible but one reviewer already has punched some holes in the various roadmaps highlighting by 2003 Intel should have an even bigger lead. Now Intel’s processor roadmap is publicly announced years ahead of time so the author is on solid ground with Intel projections, however the ARM side of the equation especially a special Apple designed ARM is far murkier.

3. Related to that last sentence, the strongest argument for moving to ARM  is that Apple using their new internal processor design team is able to completely fine tune and customize a processor for OS X that so outperforms Intel offerings in the 4 key areas, battery life, performance, video performance, and cost.

4. While Apple may already have working ARM prototype Mac, it’s not the system software that would be the problem. As with the Intel transition it’s the third party software that becomes the issue. In this proposed OS X on ARM, it’s easy to imagine Apple creating an upgrade path for iOS developers to quickly migrate their apps to OS X. However, just like the transition to OS X and then the migration to Intel,  Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office  are going to be the stragglers working at their own pace/roadmap. Now Apple has navigated these issues before, but Mac sales momentum shows no sign of stopping so artificially creatinga slow down in sales makes zero sense. In addition, the ability for Intel Macs to run Windows in either virtual apps (like Parallels which run so much better than of the previous Windows emulators) or natively booting into Windows (Bootcamp) has been a huge selling factor for Intel Macs. It provides that last level of security for switchers. Switchers know that they can run Windows if they need to. It’s doubtful that any ARM processor would be able to match the current virtual app performance and booting natively would no longer be an option at all. MoD thinks that ability to run Windows is a huge value proposition/safety net for new Mac buyers.

5. The final almost too obvious thought is that we’re not talking about ARM Macs. Apple instead is planning on a whole new type of iOS hardware that is closer to the MacBook Air, or a hybrid iPad something similar to the Asus Transfomer.  The initial rumor was talking about laptops moving to ARM being a done deal. These could be new laptops that run iOS with Apple able to take advantage of the new hardware architecture and OS requirements and create cheaper laptops in the $600 range further increasing the footprint of iOS and Apple’s price reach. This move into MacBook Air type laptops starts the transition that will eventually see an integrated operating system running an advanced iOS utilizing giant trackpads for desktops and full size trackpads on laptops (covering the entire area below the keyboard), or utilizing a recent Apple patent where sensors in the keyboard create a virtual trackpad over the keyboard detecting motion. So it’s not really an ARM transition but more of an OS X to iOS transition. It would be easy for Apple to create a file system application that would have to be installed as an free app from the app store for advanced users who want that level of access and control. Still 2013 seems too soon for such a radical transition in OS strategy. It’s definitely the future of Apple, but that future isn’t ready yet.

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