By Chand Bellur
June 21, 2020 at 2:34 p.m. PT
- Apple’s current Macintosh lineup uses Intel processors, while devices like the iPhone and iPad employ ARM chips.
- Switching the Mac to ARM-based chips would allow Apple to reduce costs, as they can realize economies of scale benefits with increased processor production.
- Analysts expect Apple to announce ARM-based Macs at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, starting on Monday, June 22, 2020.
A Brief History of Apple Processors
Apple has been around for almost 45 years. Through the years, the company produced numerous products using different processors as technology evolved.
The first Apple computer, the aptly named Apple I, used a MOS 6502 processor. This widely used processor, a fixture in Atari, Nintendo, and other products, was an off-the-shelf chip. As a new, emerging company, Apple didn’t have chip design capabilities. The company grew out of the “homebrew” computer movement, where hobbyists created computers from standard components found in electronics stores such as Radio Shack.
Through the years, Apple continued to rely on third-party manufacturers for chips. Motorola provided processors for many older Apple computers. The Motorola 68000 was a fixture in 1980’s Apple computers such as the Lisa and Macintosh. In those days, processors refreshed rarely. Apple used the same MC 68000 processor for almost seven years.
Apple continued to use Motorola processors until the mid-1990s, after which, the company pivoted to IBM PowerPC chips. Designed initially for IBM workstations, Apple opted for these reduced instruction set chips over Motorola’s processors. The chips proved popular, becoming a fixture in Macintosh computers for over a decade.
Mac Moves to Intel Chips
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company began to change for the better. Jobs’ vision of renewing Apple with a consumer-oriented focus paved the way for the trillion-dollar company they are today.
During his absence, Apple was in a rut, appealing to a niche crowd of graphic designers and audio engineers. Jobs realized that most consumers were not geeks. They wanted products that fit in with their lifestyle. The iMac, iPod, and iTunes, all results of Steve Jobs’ return to Apple, were blockbuster products.
The all-in-one iMac made it easy to connect to the Internet. Purchasing and downloading music with iTunes saved the music industry and helped Apple develop a broader customer base.
Steve Jobs’ hatred of Microsoft Windows also waned on his return. Although early versions of Windows completely ripped off the 1984 Mac, Jobs realized that Microsoft won the PC market. To convert Microsoft users, Apple ensured that products such as the iPod were Windows-compatible. This enabled Apple to tap into a much broader customer base and convert Windows users to at least like one Apple product.
During this time, Jobs extended an olive branch to Microsoft, and the company started developing Microsoft Office for the Macintosh. This was an essential step to get the Macintosh in the hands of some corporate users. Although the cheap PC clone was the mainstay of corporate America, Macs running Microsoft Office found their way into cubicle farms across the planet.
Apple took a bold move in the mid-2000s, transitioning from PowerPC to Intel chips. By using the same Intel chips that power Windows PCs, Macs could now run Windows. Apple quickly developed Boot Camp — Windows-compatible drivers and a selective boot loader, allowing users to run either OS X or Windows on a Mac.
Virtualization took this a step further, with companies like VMWare and Parallels offering the ability to run Windows apps within OS X. Mac users could have their cake and eat it too. However, the machines were still prohibitively expensive for most corporate users.
The Macintosh has been using Intel chips for over a decade, but it’s not a happy marriage. A severe security flaw in Intel chips caused Apple to scramble for a workaround. Apple must also pay more for an Intel processor than one they produce themselves. For all of these reasons, and more, analysts believe Apple will announce ARM-based Macs tomorrow.
Macintosh Switching to ARM?
Rumors about the Mac switching to ARM have been circulating for a few years. Within the past few months, more details and reputable leaks make this transition almost certain.
Cost is the most compelling reason to switch Macs to ARM-based processors. Apple designs their A-series ARM chips, which are a fixture in the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Apple TV. If Apple can switch Macs to A-series ARM chips, they will realize even greater economies of scale effects. Furthermore, they can avoid Intel’s profit margin, producing their own chips at cost.
Beyond cost, switching Macs to A-series chips makes it easier for them to run iOS apps. Apple has been fiddling with an iOS-compatibility layer for a few years, but with ARM-based chips, Macs could run iOS in a seamless virtual machine. This would allow the Mac to run any iOS software title, with full compatibility. Expect to see full iOS compatibility with future ARM-based Macintoshes.
As far as Windows 10 compatibility, Microsoft’s newest operating system now runs on ARM chips. Of course, Apple must overhaul Boot Camp to provide Windows 10 compatibility on an ARM-powered Macintosh. It remains to be seen if they are willing to do this.
Fourteen years ago, when Apple switched to Intel processors, a lot of popular software titles only worked on Windows. Things have changed. As the Mac has become more popular, more developers make macOS versions of their software, diminishing the need for Windows 10 on a Mac. I’ve never needed to run a Windows app on my Mac. That’s true for the vast majority of Mac users.
When Will ARM-Based Macs be Available?
As with most reliable Apple rumors, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo’s foresight, based on supply-chain analysis, seems to be correct. Kuo predicts that Apple’s ARM-based Macs will launch late this year or in early 2021.
Apple will start its ARM transition with the 13.3″ MacBook Pro and a new, redesigned 24″ iMac. The redesigned iMac will initially sport Intel chips; however, the machine will transition to ARM with its next iteration.
As with all new Apple products, ARM-based Macs may suffer from some minor defects. Apple has so much experience with ARM; however, it’s more likely that future Macs will be far more secure and reliable than their Intel ancestors.
Overall, the transition to ARM-based Macs should benefit the consumer. The Macintosh will likely become even more cost-effective, rivaling mid-to-high-end PCs. With a unified processor architecture, Apple can reuse much more of its iOS codebase than before. Instead of the Mac being a step-child product, it may, once again, regain its status. Whether it will ever become the flagship is doubtful; however, it will remain a valuable part of Apple’s armada.