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The pros and cons of an Apple-Intel divorce

Tom R. Halfhill | Jan. 23, 2013
There's no need for an OS X-iOS merger, but Apple could ditch Intel in its Macs -- or adopt Intel in the iPhone and iPad.

Rumors persist that Apple will switch the Macintosh from Intel's x86 processors to ARM-compatible chips like those in the iPhone, iPad, and other iOS devices. Is that possible? Is it even a good idea?

The rumours didn't come out of nowhere. In late 2010, then-CEO Steve Jobs suggested that iOS and OS X would eventually merge. In mid-2011, Apple read Intel the riot act about its power-hungry Core chips in the Mac line and hinted it might move the Macs to ARM-based CPUs.

Perhaps mindful of Apple's previous success in changing chips -- first from the Motorola 680x0 to the IBM/Motorola PowerPC in 1994, then from the PowerPC to the Intel x86 in 2005 -- Intel quickly reminded the industry it had power-efficient "Ivy Bridge" Core processors and "Medfield" Atom processors in the works. "Ivy Bridge" began shipping in mid-2012, powering both Macs and Windows Ultrabooks.

What's behind the "abandon Intel" rumors

Despite Intel's moves to make the x86 more power-efficient, the rumors that Apple will dump x86 processors continue, perhaps because of slow adoption of Intel's Atom processors in smartphones or because Apple keeps making its own A-series ARM-based CPUs in the iPad even faster. But persistent rumors can be wrong. After all, we still hear that NASA faked the Apollo moon landings and that Elvis Presley lives.

Although the Apple rumor is more plausible, that doesn't make it true. And even if reports are accurate that Apple already has iOS up and running on ARM-based Macs in the lab, the switcheroo won't necessarily happen. Lab geeks are always up to something. Besides, the rumor has various incarnations. Some say Apple will abandon OS X and switch the Mac to iOS without changing the processors. Others invert the rumor, predicting that Apple will switch iOS devices to the x86 when Intel's Atom processors are more competitive with ARM on power efficiency.

The common ground beneath all this speculation is that Apple will eventually merge its two major product lines -- Macintoshes and mobile devices -- with a single microprocessor architecture, operating system, software-development environment, and app store. For both Apple and users, life will become simpler. In some ways, this grand unification theory makes sense, which lends it credibility. Even if it doesn't make sense, it could still happen -- if it was a last wish of Steve Jobs.

The need to merge iOS and OS X is questionable

First, supporting two product lines with different microprocessor architectures and operating systems is not a great burden for a large, rich company like Apple. Each product line generates enough revenue to justify some duplication of resources. In fact, such redundancy is better than compromising performance or design flexibility by forcing the products into a one-size-fits-all platform. Apple knows this -- if the bean counters ruled Apple, its trend-setting products would be as boring as those from many of its clueless competitors.


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