Regarding ARM-based Macs...again

An analyst report making the rounds today suggests that Apple will get ARM-based Macs into production sometime next year. Forgive me if I yawn a bit, but this is nothing new. Last year, Rene wrote an editorial about a previous ARM Mac rumor too. According the new rumor, propagated by KGI Research, Apple will get into production a Mac using a future version of the same ARM CPU hardware it already manufactures for the iPhone and iPad. The report suggests that Apple would build a low-end machine based on this hardware, leaving Intel to provide faster chips for the rest of the Mac line, at least for now.

First off, it's reasonable to expect that Apple is developing new gear all the time, and I'd be utterly unsurprised to find out that the company already has ARM-based Macs chained up in a skunkworks office somewhere in the bowels of Cupertino. In fact, I consider it eminently likely.

Apple's changed the central processing architecture of the Macintosh twice before. The original Mac and its successors shipped with Motorola's 68000-series microprocessors; eventually Apple migrated the Macintosh platform to a new RISC-based processor called the PowerPC chip, which ushered in the era of the Power Macintosh (though the first few generations of PowerBook still used 68K processors). In 2006 Apple switched platforms once again, bringing the Macintosh into the Intel era.

Each transition presented certain challenges both for Apple and its developers. In retrospect, Apple handled the transition from PowerPC to Intel easier than it had previous transitions. That's because the underpinnings of OS X had long been disconnected from hardware dependency: the NeXTStep OS ran on a variety of computer platforms, not just the fabled black NeXT computer.

That level of abstraction is partly what made it possible for Apple to make the next progression, too, when it further abstracted OS X to run as a mobile operating system, eventually calling that effort iOS. From day one, iOS devices have run on different hardware from Macs.

Obviously any kind of transition like this is not without its pitfalls and its challenges. Casualties in such a change would include Mac users who still rely on Boot Camp or virtualization software like Parallels Desktop, VMWare Fusion and VirtualBox, all of which rely on the Mac's Intel underpinnings to run Windows (and other non-OS X operating systems) relatively quickly, thanks to the Mac's current PC-like architecture. I report on Mac games, and that's another business that might suffer greatly if the architecture changes too far from Intel.

Right now Apple's dependent on Intel being able to provide regular, consistent updates to its own PC processor line in order to provide regular refreshes to the Mac which provide quantitative performance and efficiency improvements. The latest change that did that was the introduction of Haswell chips in 2013: That's when Apple saw big boosts to battery life on the MacBook Air and other changes it was able to leverage into solid user experience improvements for the Mac.

2014 was largely a snoozer — Intel got way behind schedule in its introduction in a replacement for Haswell, and it's only now catching up: Last week at CES Intel announced the 2015 roadmap for Broadwell chips, and some of the models that look like likely options for new Mac hardware won't be available in quantity until mid-year.

So if Apple rattles its saber from time to time to remind Intel that it isn't slaved to the company, don't be surprised. And even if a transition happens, expect Apple to come prepared, and be ready to help developers along with the process. Even if there are a few bumps in the road.