While rumours abound of Apple looking at ARM-based processors for its mainstream computers, at least one analyst thinks the company could be going the other way and switching its mobile devices across to Intel.
Since its inception, Apple has used own-brand chips manufactured by Samsung and based on designs from British chip giant ARM in its iPhone line. The iPad that followed took the same path, with the current iPad 2 powered by an ARM-based 'Apple A5' dual-core processor.
Intel, for its part, is trying desperately to get into the mobile market with a range of lower-power Atom parts. The company's stand at Computex 2011 in Taipei was evidence of this: the vast majority of floorspace was given over to tablets, from Android- and MeeGo-based products to concept designs like the somewhat dated Keeley Lake prototype.
Citigroup analyst Glen Yeung has suggested that Intel could be looking to Apple for help with its mobile domination plans, and that the fruit-themed Cupertino company is agreeable to yet another Intel switch in the near future. Speaking to Forbes, Yeung suggested that there is "the potential for Apple to eventually convert from an ARM-based core for handsets and tablets to x86."
Intel and Apple have a long history together. Back in 2005, Apple surprised the world with the news that it would be shifting from its PowerPC architecture to Intel's x86, a process which took a not inconsiderable amount of time and heartache. The result is that every Mac system, from the ultra-thin Air to the all-in-one iMac, is powered by an Intel processor. The exception, of course, is the company's ARM-based mobile products.
It has long been claimed that Apple is looking to switch to a single architecture across its entire product line-up. With the iPhone, iPad, Mac, and MacBook line-ups all sharing the same core operating system, a common processor architecture would allow developers to create a single app which would run on any Apple device.
Rumours suggested that the single architecture would be ARM, with Apple moving its desktops and laptops to the low-power chips. It's a move that certainly fits in with ARM chief Tudor Brown's claims that his company's chips will account for 40 per cent of the laptop market by 2015, but that would leave Apple users facing yet another architecture shift.
Yeung's argument is that a switch on the mobile side to x86 - and therefore Intel - would be a significantly easier task, but it's difficult to gauge the likelihood of his suggested scenario. Currently, Intel leads in the performance stakes but has nothing which can touch ARM's designs for low-power use. For desktops, where power draw is less critical, Intel is a clear leader, but for mobile devices Apple would appear crazy to move to Intel chips.
That's something which can rapidly change, of course. As ARM is developing higher performance designs like the Cortex-A15 Eagle, Intel is shrinking its silicon down to produce low-power devices in order to compete head-to-head with the British chip giant's offerings. The key word in Yeung's comment is, of course, "eventually."
For now, it would appear that Apple will continue on its current path with two different architectures: x86 for the mainstream and ARM for the low-power gear. Should the company move to a unified architecture, the chips so chosen will depend on who wins the current race: ARM, in making high-performance parts that are better suited to desktop use, or Intel, in making chips that don't draw vast quantities of power.