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Could Apple switch Macs from x86 to ARM?

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by Grant Brunner, 07 Nov 2012Features
Could Apple switch Macs from x86 to ARM?

Apple has changed processor architecture for its Macs twice. The original Macs ran on old-school Motorola processors, and then they switched over to the PowerPC platform in 1994. In 2005, it was announced that Apple would be moving to the much more popular Intel x86 architecture. Since then, there have been quite a few stirrings about whether or not Apple will be shifting to a different architecture – namely ARM – but nothing has panned out. This is a conversation worth having, though.

As we reported yesterday, a Bloomberg article has discussed claims that Apple is exploring Mac OS X for ARM processors. At the beginning of the Bloomberg piece, it is clearly stated that the authors don’t think Apple will switch away from Intel in the next few years. Very few people following the personal computer industry closely would disagree with that. Macs will ship using Intel chips for the foreseeable future – full-stop.

It’s also important to note that Apple is most assuredly testing OS X on ARM. Remember that iOS is based on the codebase of OS X. In a way, it’s been public knowledge that Apple is tinkering with OS X on ARM since 2007. In fact, its best-selling products run on ARM processors, so it makes a lot of sense that it would at least be in the running for its desktops and laptops.

The Intel transition went quite well for Apple. Rosetta, a built-in emulation layer, worked very well for older applications. At the same time, Apple worked very hard on making it easy for people to compile x86-native code in its development environment called Xcode. While Apple did allow “fat binaries” that included both PowerPC and x86 code, it slowly phased out PowerPC support until it was completely discontinued. OS X 10.5 was the last OS from Apple that ran on PowerPC hardware, and OS X 10.7 was the last OS that supported PowerPC emulation on Intel hardware.

Microsoft is taking this to the next step by actively supporting both x86 and ARM processors in Windows 8. It is banking on developers compiling and shipping both Intel and ARM versions of their software going forward, so it is focused on making the process as simple as possible. While Apple seems okay with supporting two platforms during a transitional period, it doesn’t share the desire of Microsoft to actively maintain the same software on two different architectures. If Apple does decide at some time in the future to use ARM CPUs for its Macs, it will almost certainly be at the expense of Intel support.

Right now, we are at an interesting juncture. Intel can’t compete with ARM on low power usage quite yet, and ARM still isn’t shipping chips that are as computationally powerful as Intel’s. Both sides are racing towards the middle ground, and we just need to see who can get there first. Intel’s CPUs are making great strides in power consumption, and ARM processors are growing by leaps and bounds.

Regardless of which platform Apple chooses in the coming years, it just won’t make much of a difference for consumers. The threat of Macs shipping with ARM processors is something that Intel should be worried about, but not us.

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