Ex-Apple Exec says Macs could run on ARM processors by 2016

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Over the years, I’ve seen rumor after rumor that Apple would eventually abandon Intel chips in favor of ARM chips. And time after time, I’ve refuted those arguments, saying that a Mac running ARM processors is not likely to happen anytime soon.

But maybe I’m wrong. Former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée — himself a longtime skeptic of Apple’s transition to ARM chips for its desktop and laptop computers — says he’s recently been convinced, and even believes that Apple could release ARM-based Macs as soon as 2016.

Proponents of the theory that Apple will migrate to ARM-based Macs usually argue that the power benefits of switching to ARM make it a very cost-effective move to Apple in a long run. In the past, I have argued that the power-efficiency of ARM chips compared to Intel chips are overblown at the higher clock speeds of desktops and laptops, making them negligible.

But Gassée points out an even better reason for Apple to switch to ARM processors: Steve Jobs’s belief that Apple should be in control of every aspect of its own technology. Even after Jobs’s death, Gassée says, this philosophy is alive and well at Apple.

Apple’s drive to own “all layers of the stack” continues unabated years after Steve’s passing. As a recent example, Apple created its own Swift programming language that complements its Xcode IDE and Clang/LLVM compiler infrastructure.

After pointing out that ARM chips are more power-efficient (which may be negligibly true) and cheaper than Intel’s processors (definitely true), Gassée concludes:

If we follow this line of reasoning, the advantages of ARM-based processors vs. x86 devices become even more compelling: lower cost, better power dissipation, natural integration with the rest of the machine. For years, Intel has argued that its superior semiconductor design and manufacturing technology would eventually overcome the complexity downsides of the x86 architecture. But that “eventually” is getting a bit stale. Other than a few showcase design wins that have never amounted to much in the real world, x86 devices continue to lose to ARM-derived SoC (System On a Chip) designs.

He makes a good point. According to Gassée, he even thinks we could see a desktop-class A10 processor, which would put the eventual migration of the Mac from x86 to ARM to begin at 2016. Which means that in the next two years, iOS and OS X could eventually converge.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

  • Matt Bland

    I certainly hope that they keep native x86/x64 compatibility for running Windows software via Parallels, Fusion, Virtualbox, etc. We run an entire company on Mac’s running Windows software along side MS Office for Mac, Safari, etc.

  • Matt Bland

    There’s always the chance that the ARM CPUs are cheap enough to integrate as a secondary processor for running low powered tasks whilst the main CPU is asleep such as syncing/backing up, checking email, streaming music from the iTunes library to networked devices, etc. This could also be used for speeding up iOS development and running iOS apps natively on a Mac alongside OS X apps, perhaps Apple TV style apps for instance.

    • RyanTV

      I was thinking the same thing. It would be a terrible shame if, after all these years, Apple moved away from x64 processing. Other than the occasional product delays, Intel does a good job with pumping out new silicon that is either more powerful or more energy efficient.

      A low-power secondary processor could be useful for a Safari/Mail/Music only type usage situation.

  • popeyoni

    Windows compatibility was the reason I got my first Mac.I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. I use Macs with Windows VMs at work. An ARM chip would put a stop to that. I don’t think it’s a good idea.

  • http://www.marcwitteveen.com Marc Witteveen

    Maybe the support for ARM processors is already build into the Mac operating system like they did when they converted from PowerPC to Intel Processors.

  • sigzero

    Moving to ARM would be a death nell.

    • CelestialTerrestrial

      I think it wouldn’t be prudent to switch from X86 to ARM, even though they could port everything over, it would just be a big mess again until all of the developers got everything over to run natively on ARM. I think the person that made the comment is probably talking out of their rear end. I’m sure Apple has and probably tests the product. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple came out with an iPad that actually ran OS X on it, but I would say they would switch all of their products to ARM. They would have to make a ARM processor or multiple ARM processors that could outdo the high end XEONs they are using in the MacPros in addition to outdoing all of the processors used. Personally, I don’t really take these type of comments seriously. It’s more BS rumors than anything serious.

  • xxmixedxtapexx

    Why not both?

    • CelestialTerrestrial

      Because it would increase the mfg costs too much and I don’t see what the reason would be to have two processors of two different types (CISC and RISC) in one computer.

  • Chuck McGinley

    Tired of this rumor. What a stupid idea. There is ZERO compelling reasons to switch Apple Notebooks.

  • Chuck McGinley

    I’d add that Apple’s push into the Enterprise makes this an even “dumber” idea.

  • Digital Liberty

    Gassée left Apple in 1990. Think he still has the inside track on something this strategic?

  • Naum Rusomarov

    What do I think? I think that this is a stupid article.

  • CelestialTerrestrial

    Jean-Louis Gassee? That guy hasn’t been with Apple is over 20 years. I think he’s off the deep end. I guess the only reason to switch would be that if Intel was abandoning the technology, then I would agree. Otherwise, I just don’t think they are.

  • TeeJay1100

    I could see Tim Cook the #’s guy opting out for Arm instead of Intel processors to save a buck!!! Thing about # guys is they always are counting their beans to make cuts where they can. With the IBM deal and now this I am totally not surprised to see this news even come up. I could really see this happening. Macs will totally be crap then running ARM.

  • Brian

    Many arguments for this rumor circle around the belief that Apple wants to own all layers of the stack. They innovate in areas where they add value (user experience, software, hardware design, and in the case of phones and tablets, they design the SoC). What could they provide in a Mac CPU that they couldn’t get from Intel?

    When Jobs announced the switch to Intel, he said that Apple wanted to design products they couldn’t build with the Power PC roadmap. The only reason they would switch from Intel is if they couldn’t create a certain Mac because was a power/performance/feature that Intel couldn’t/wouldn’t provide. That’s why they do their own SoCs for phones/tables – no one else can make the chips they want in that segment. For PCs, nobody has named a feature (yet) that Apple can provide with the A-series that Intel couldn’t provide for a PC. It isn’t battery life. There’s just so much more to lose for the tasks we rely on PCs to do.

    Why would Apple want to invest in competing with Intel in the PC space? Remember the days when Apple tried to convince people that Power PC was as good as Intel (remember the Macworld speech Rubinstein gave on the Megahertz Myth?). Why would they want to spend effort competing there when many people buys Macs because they are x86 compatible. There has to be a better reason than “desire to control the stack.” If that was the reason, they would also be designing their own memory and hard drives.

  • Kr00

    This is just a brain fart from someone who thinks they know what Apple might do, yet hasn’t been around the company for over a decade. It’s not only uneconomical, it would alienate those running virtual PC’s as well as desktop developers. Apple have a great working relationship with Intel and I can’t see them trashing it for a highly risky move. There are so many cons to this rumour, I don’t know wether to laugh or spew.

  • ny3ranger

    Werent there some rumors that because of Intel chip pushed back from late this year to early next year might stop apple from releasing new macbooks? That is reason number one to design your own chip.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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