Will Apple Shed x86 for ARM CPUs on Macbooks?
Is the heyday of the x86 CPU over? Not quite yet, but if media reports regarding Apple‘s (NASDAQ: AAPL) intention to switch to ARM chips are true, the days of the ubiquitous architecture on which most modern PCs and laptops are built may be numbered. Here are the details, and what they could mean for the channel more broadly.
Citing unnamed sources, a report from Bloomberg last week suggested that Apple is investigating a switch to ARM CPUs on all of its computing devices. ARM chips already power Apple’s popular mobile and tablet devices, as well as a host of similar hardware from other manufacturers. Virtually all traditional desktop and laptop PCs, however, including Apple’s, use x86 processors built by Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) or AMD (NYSE: AMD).
For the time being, according to the report, Apple remains “committed to Intel in computers and is unlikely to switch in the next few years.” But as ARM chips grow increasingly powerful and begin matching the performance of x86 CPUs, Apple may adopt them for all of its hardware.
Such a move could have major implications. Most obviously, it would be a setback for chip manufacturer Intel, which currently supplies all of the CPUs for Apple PCs. The news could be particularly devastating given Intel’s slow entry into the mobile computing market, in which its major rival, AMD, currently enjoys more momentum.
At the same time, a decision by Apple to switch entirely to ARM technology could push the software world to begin tailoring more code to ARM architectures. Most mobile operating systems and applications, of course, work well on ARM already. But progress toward optimizing other software, such as Microsoft Windows and Linux, has been halting, largely because the hardware demand doesn’t exist. While the proliferation of Macbooks powered by ARM and OS X wouldn’t change that, it might inspire other OEMs to build PCs with ARM chips as well, which would put pressure on developers to perfect their code for ARM.
For similar reasons, a potential endorsement of ARM by Apple also could speed adoption of ARM servers, which bring with them the promise of lower hardware costs and better energy efficiency. That could create major disruption in the market for enterprise server hardware.
And last but not least, if Apple develops ARM chips for PCs itself, the move could threaten interoperability and openness. Apple already goes out of its way to prevent users from installing alternative operating systems on its computers, but it’s still possible to do so if you’re geeky enough and unconcerned about potential legal issues. The goals of projects such as Hackintosh likely would become much more difficult if Apple adopted proprietary ARM chips without fully documented instruction sets.
More rigid proprietary standards would be a boon to Apple’s business model, but they would frustrate third-party developers eager to write software for Macs without having to be assured of Apple’s approval. The ongoing controversy over Apple’s ability to dictate which applications users can run on their iPhones could then extend to Apple PCs as well.
Of course, beyond the reports Bloomberg cites from anonymous sources, there has yet to emerge any reliable confirmation of Apple’s intention of doing away with x86 chips. And if the change does come, it will take a while — possibly long enough for traditional PC hardware to lose much of its relevance in the first place. But this is nonetheless a topic for many stakeholders to watch closely going forward.