Jean-Louis Gassée: What it would take for Apple to ARM all Macs

For years, rumors have swirled that Apple would dump sloth-like Intel and transition to ARM-powered Macs with Apple-designed processors. Late last month, Apple supply-chain uber-analyst Ming-Chi Kuo wrotes that Apple plans to release a Mac with an Apple-designed processor in the first half of next year.

ARM-based Mac. Image: MacBook Air

Jean-Louis Gassée for Monday Note:

Apple’s home-grown ARM processors will replace x86 Intel chips as the main CPU of our Macs [is] a prophecy that was reinvigorated last week when notorious and prolific analyst Ming-Chi Kuo added a timeline to the prediction: Apple will make the move in the next 12 to 18 months…

First, ARM-ing the Mac would create what I called a “rolling fork” across the seven different main models that make up the Mac line, from the Mac mini to the Mac Pro. Despite possessing an energetic and infinitely-funded magic wand, Apple wouldn’t be able to instantly replace each member of the line with an equivalent ARM-powered model… What would customers think of buying a new x86 Mac when the company just made it clear that it’s now past its sell-by date?

What happens when the “roll” finally meets the Mac Pro? …I had a hard time seeing ARM processors achieve such performance. I was wrong… Ampere designs and sells high-powered ARM chips that compete with the Xeon processors used in cloud servers. Ampere top of the line chips consume less power, about 210 watts, than a competing Xeon CPU needing as much as 400 wats, for about the same amount of computing power… [But] why invest in the development of such a high-end chip for Mac Pro’s low volume?

MacDailyNews Take: Start with the “MacBook” and make it as seamless as possible to users and developers. Play up the benefits, of which there will be many, for some examples: True all-day battery life, universal apps that work across iPhones, iPads, and Macs, etc. Release an ARM-powered Mac Mini and maybe even an iMac a short time later. During the next 1-2 years after the initial launch, work to move all other Macs to ARM. Possibly use Ampere for high-end ARM processors for the Mac Pro. Then, once the efficacy has been proven by the initial batch of ARM-based Macs, rip off the bandaid, and release all new ARM-powered Macs all at once.

Now, the question is, does that seem doable? Again the question is, “What happens to sales of Intel-based Macs?” Do they fall off a cliff like sales of PowerPC Macs during the last transition? Is there some way for Apple to make Intel-based Macs not seem like, or even be, a dead end?

Obviously, there are many questions, but if the benefits to users from moving Macs to ARM are clear and compelling, and the changeover is executed well, Apple-designed ARM-based Macs could lead to greater sales than ever before!

We’ve been anticipating ARM-based Macs for quite a long time now and we can’t for the the process to begin!

Think code convergence (more so than today) with UI modifications per device. A unified underlying codebase for Intel, Apple A-series, and, in Apple’s labs, likely other chips, too (just in case). This would allow for a single App Store for Mac, iPhone, and iPad users that features a mix of apps: Some that are touch-only, some that are Mac-only, and some that are universal (can run on both traditional notebooks and desktops as well as on multi-touch computers like iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and – pretty please, Apple – Apple TV). Don’t be surprised to see Apple A-series-powered Macs, either.MacDailyNews Take, January 9, 2014

Apple has been, for years, building strength in the enterprise via BYOD and the rise of mobile which Apple ushered in with iPhone and iPad. “Compatibility with Windows” is not nearly as important today as it was even a few years ago… We expect to see Apple begin the ARM-based Mac transition with products like the MacBook and work their way up from there as the apps are brought over to ARM via Xcode and as the rest of the world continues to throw off the Microsoft Windows shackles into which they stupidly climbed so many years ago, lured, wrongly, solely by Windows PC sticker prices.MacDailyNews, June 19, 2019

29 Comments

  1. One wonders if ARM-based Macs will no longer offer Bootcamp that enables dual-boot capability for both macOS and Windows on all of my Macs. I even have one MacBook Pro configured to boot up exclusively into Windows 10 Pro and dedicated to that OS to take advantage of Windows-only apps.

    1. Microsoft is there already. They’ve been pushing it for a while now, providing developer kits and stuff. The new Surface X is a Windows 10 device. Some apps need to be converted, but they are doing pretty much what MDN describes above. It’s clear that ARM and iPad like devices and laptops are the future that MS sees, not just Apple.

      So I would think a BOOTCAMP for ARM would be doable by Apple as well. I’m more concerned about virtualization on ARM, but I’m seeing lots of Hypervisor activity on ARM as well. DuckDuck ARM and Hypervisor. So hopefully Parallels is working on that.

      I see many new ARM PCs out there these days though.

      1. Just to clarify, yes I’m aware about Microsoft’s Windows on ARM (WoA) efforts, what I meant to say is that it should be fairly transparent for Microsoft to port WoA to Apple’s ARM Mac. I think bootcamp on Mac ARM is beneficial for both Apple and Microsoft: for Apple it’s another enticement to attract Windows users and for Microsoft it gives WoA greater exposure and credibility.

    2. Well, obviously dual-boot would be out, but I’m curious about VMs. AMD already fought the battles allowing the Intel instruction set to be used by anybody. I wonder if a future Apple ARM chip might include some Intel instructions in order to make a viable emulator possible.

  2. I just bought a new Mac Pro and don’t anticipate any change to that architecture for at least 6-7 years. When you think how long the Mac Pro’s of yore have lasted and if these newer ones don’t it will add insult to years of Apple pro user injury by letting them have a much less useful shelf life since they were so late to arrive.

    1. I was wondering about that. If the new, new MacPros move to ARM will that damage the investment of Intel MacPro owners. Cause like you said, that is easily a 7 year computer with the upgrade capabilities and all.

    2. It is far too early to worry about ARM/A-series Mac Pros, Fesarius. Relax and enjoy your new Mac Pro.

      Besides, what choice did Apple have but to release an Intel-based Mac Pro in 2019? Pro users had already waited far too long for the new machine. Plus, as you state, upgradeable Mac Pros of “yore” easily lasted 6 to 7 years. The new Mac Pros are not suddenly going to become useless when an ARM/A-series based Mac Pro is released. In fact, I suspect that it will take a couple of years after its initial release for an ARM/A-series Mac Pro to be able to access the majority of the pro apps.

      If, however, the ARM/A-series based Mac Pro is truly a massively parallel powerhouse that sparks early adoption, then there will be an incentive for some pros to move to the new platform more quickly. The result will be bargain prices on Intel-based Mac Pros for pro users who can still squeeze years of productive life out of the current models.

  3. My $.02 is that we’ve entered an era that, for nearly all consumers and the vast majority of Apple business customers, the silicon platform doesn’t matter any more. Back in the day (even just a few years ago), x86 compatibility for Boot Camp was massively more important than it is today mainly because so many server back ends used to run exclusively on Wintel. Now, any company still with a beating heart has a web-based interface and a cloud solution.

    What DOES matter is performance, battery life, etc. and all the tradeoffs between them. So, if you’re Apple and you can seamlessly solve the engineering problems that would plague developers (and some consumers) by having a fantastic OS that can run on ARM or x86, then do that. And then just continue to put the best possible hardware compromise into the machines. There are two extremes — MacBook and Mac Pro. One is clearly an ARM candidate, the other x86 (maybe even with Ryzen/AMD at the heart someday) . . . . as long as there are differences in the advantages and tradeoffs between those hardware platforms, then there is a strong desire for an OS that can handle it all.

    I do not see ARM running on a Mac Pro anytime soon (as in within a decade). But then again, if some variation of a A-series processor that has like 10 of them in there running faster, cooler and more power efficient than any x86 competitor, then hell why not? Just put the right CPU in the right form factor and make them reliable and beautiful and Apple will keep kick A$$.

    As for Boot Camp . . . for many, it is no longer needed. For those who it is, I really think any ARM-based replacement for x86 is gonna have such a compelling speed boost that a hit to performance via virtualization might still make it feasible. It won’t slow like Windows on PowerPC used to be….

    1. WTF are you babbling about?

      By moving to ARM, Apple could continue to increase its PC market share and scoop much of the profits — it currently rakes in about half of the money made by PC makers. And it could do this while catering to its customers in the Affordable Luxury segment who like owning both an iPad and a Mac.Jean-Louis Gassée, August 3, 2014

  4. There are two main advantages for Apple to start selling ARM-based Macs.
    First, there is cost and power benefits that would allow them to have more competitive pricing or better margins whilst delivering long battery life for laptops. Better pricing would certianly help Apple squeeze the market and force the competitors into lower margin territory.
    Second, Apple would own the chip design process. With Motorola and then IBM, they were constantly being held back by the lack of new chipsets. The G3 was the really only good example when the chips delivered on time. G4 and G5 development and production were obviously very frustrating for Apple. The switch to Intel was a massive shot in the arm for Macs but now we see more delays in chip production due to Intel’s lack of ability (or motivation) to keep on time with their roadmap.
    My guess is that 90% of Mac consumers (not professionals) would not even notice a transition to ARM-based Macs. Most don’t need windows-compatibility and probably being able to run iOS apps easily could be a big advantage.
    For those that rely on the Intel-based Mac, the change could be more challenging. Apple would need to commit to keeping the 2 forks alive for multiple years to support legacy machines and also provide a Intel solution for laptops and desktops until the major software players provide the necessary ARM-based versions.

    1. Agreed. If you run a low end laptop or iMac for school or light office work you don’t need x86 compatibility.

      It would make sense for Apple to slowly roll out ARM Macs. It gives them a chance to see if there are problems and to see how people use them.

      I can’t imagine that pro level Macs will switch for a decade.

      1. I recommend you head on over to the online Mac app store. Look at the top selling apps.

        #1 top grossing app: Microsoft Word

        3 : Microsoft Excel

        #1 free app: Microsoft Remote Desktop

        Microsoft remains an indispensable software house for Macs. If Apple moves to ARM without bringing Microsoft seamlessly alongside, Apple ARM devices will fail. Nobody using a Mac today would accept MS Office for iOS as an acceptable substitute for fully featured Mac apps.

        The Apple strategy can and should be simple: keep Macs on x86 and make them more capable and business friendly than ever. Keep iOS on ARM and let lightweight users decide if that’s all they need. But don’t insult users and claim iPads are all anyone needs, or embarrass Apple by asking what’s a computer. A computer is personal and operates without a cloud when needed. An iPad is a thin client that cannot compute jackshit without constant connectivity to the mothership.

  5. What specifically disappoints you with the chipsets Apple uses today in its Macs, other than the fact that Apple updates their Macs so infrequently that PC makers often have faster newer chips in them? Is there a function that you feel is missing?

    I can’t wait for the incessant MDN-fed ARM hype to blow over. The last thing Apple needs is more foreign-made components licensed from a foreign company. If Apple had used its mega cash pile to own the chip technologies and/or fabrication centers, then they could perhaps control their destiny. As it is, however, Apple remains dependent on a handful of chipmakers no matter what CPU architecture they run. Apple has always relied on some other chip supplier. Despite having the cash to do so, it has always refused to own a foundry or purchase the intellectual property of any chipmaker. Timmy could have snatched up IBM or Motorola’s operations but he instead decided to prioritize future company growth on low-margin music and bring in Dre and Iovine with their plastic cans and rental music software. So Apple to this day has to buy chips from somebody. It is highly doubtful that Samsung or Taiwan Semi are going to roll over and give Apple major price breaks, what incentive do they have to do so? For the foreseeable future, for high-power computing uses such as the Mac, the changeover costs and questionable performance gains of adopting ARM simply don’t make any sense for anybody.

    Then there is the software. Anyone can make up a narrative around this. Maybe Apple will hand out decoder dongles that will make all software universal! Yeah, dream on. If Intel, Adobe, Autodesk, Quark, … as well as SAP, VMware, Intuit, Mariner, Omni, Koingo, Karelia, and yes MICROSOFT, etc aren’t on board — not to mention all the small developers without deep resources to completely rewrite their software — then Apple doesn’t have a prayer in pulling off a major Mac chip change. Remember, it worked last time because Intel x86 offered BOTH higher performance AND new software developers who could easily recompile their programs for the Mac. ARM offers neither of these advantages. It also doesn’t save battery life or run cooler if you’re operating more chip cycles to accomplish the same basic tasks. (RISC versus CISC does matter). And it ain’t all going to the raincloud either. Mac users need local processing power.

    But you guys keep dreaming that a glorified All-in-One iPad with attached keyboard and reworked iPadOS software is going to make for a superior personal computer if it makes you happy…….. the rest of us would instead like Apple to break free from the Jony Ive Thinness rat race and update the Mac hardware on a ~3 year schedule instead of a 5+ year schedule.

      1. So no real complaints about Intel then. All you have is the MDN-fueled grudge against the most successful US chip manufacturer — the company that worked with Steve Jobs to usher in the resurgence of the Mac.

  6. Nowadays there is no difference between Apple and it’s Compititors all have the same processor INTEL. THINK DIFFERENT is missing. I used to love the old mac namely IMac G3, G4, G4 Cube, Ibook G3, G4 they were unique and different from compititors at that time.User upgradable option was there, changing of parts was possible like Ram, Hdd, battery,etc nowadays everything is soldered onto logic board making impossible to repair and if possible very expensive. Apple needs transition. It was Imac G3 which brought All in One concept, it was the iPod which changed the music industry, It was the iPhone which changed the smartphone industry,it was the iPad which changed the tablet industry then I watch then so on…… I am sure ARM Mac or whatever Apple calls it will change the PC industry too.

    1. That is why Apple needs to move on, a Laptop which is able to run all day is within reach if the
      A-Series CPU is used (margins are also better), Apple can’t wait for the ship of fools….

      1. If you want workstation power with all-day battery power, then Apple would have to end its thinness fetish and install more capable batteries. Under load, ARM offers insignificant energy efficiency versus any other chipset. Of course that depends on user workload, but most people who buy Macs expect to do some relatively intensive computing.

        Back in the good old days, Apple even offered a 17″ MacBook Pro designed for road warriors who needed serious computing capability, battery life, screen real estate, and even a plethora of commonly used ports. Sadly Apple refused to keep it updated, letting it rot on the vine.

        ARM is not on the list of features that Mac users have asked for, and it obviously hasn’t offered the value leap. iPad Pro buyers are not replacing Mac buyers en masse. If you counted all the reasons, you would understand the value of having an Intel chipset in a Mac, designed for heavy lifting with fully featured software.

        If on the other hand you buy into the incessant pipedream that ARM is superior in all things, and the only thing Apple needs to excel in is lightweight client apps like a chromebook or phone, then you should have already switched to iPads and have no reason to cheer for the further dumbing down of the Mac.

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