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Apple may move to ARM architecture for Macs

Ironically Apple helped fund and establish ARM (Advanced RISC Machines) in the UK back at the time of the Apple Newton. Now with ARM based chips dominating both smartphones and tablet markets, it looks like Apple may once again move the entire industry to a new paradigm.


The big news today is that Apple may be about to move its Mac OS X platform to the ARM architecture. This is based on rumor, mind you. There have been no official announcements to this affect from any company involved. However, it is in our opinion that this process has likely already been underway for quite some time.

The ARM Rationale

Architosh is not privy to any information that would lead us to believe this. It is just a matter of understanding Jobsian Logic. Such logic would inform you that Apple will take–when it has the reasonable opportunity–any path that allows it to gain unique advantages on their hardware and software fronts. Especially if this path enables them added control, first mover advantage or unique IP strengths.

This is the path it took with the iPad. When Architosh put together its final predictions on what the first iPad would hold we narrowed down on the fact that Apple had acquired PA Semi for a reason. We knew ARM was in the iPad…but what ARM chip?

“What would be really stunning today is if Apple has based the device on its own silicon design–namely that it has utilized its PA Semi group…”

(Read Architosh’s article that talked about an Apple touch device in the vertical markets...)

Control, First-Mover Advantage and IP Strengths

When Apple bought PA Semi it gained immediate intellectual property  (IP) strengths. Dan Dobberpuhl, who founded PA Semi was a lead designer for the well-regarded Alpha microprocessor as well as the StrongARM processor. Some speculated that Apple mainly wanted access to the PA Semi patents, not so much the 150 person strong PA Semi team.

As it turns out Dobberpuhl left Apple along with a small contingent of former PA Semi engineers and joined Amarjit Gill, a former principal at PA Semi who founded Silicon Valley start-up Agnilux. That company was since acquired by Google last year. And nobody knew exactly what Agnilux was actually doing, leaving a big mystery behind Google’s intentions.

The ARM processor was already highly involved in the smartphone market so adopting it wasn’t giving Apple any first-mover advantage. But it did come with some additional control since PA Semi had the highest level architectural license with ARM back in the UK. With it they could design their own modified ARM architectures. Apple’s A4 and A5 processors are unique ARM-based chips for Apple, thus the control issue and differentiation which many assumed Apple bought PA Semi for in the first place.

ARM the PCs

Going back to first-mover advantages, moving its personal computer business from Intel x86 over to ARM may or may not have any first-mover advantages for Apple. The Mac mainly competes with Windows. And Microsoft has already announced it is moving Windows to ARM processors. However, Microsoft’s moves are not entirely clear either. They appear to be moving over to ARM for Windows on slates.

Regardless, Apple can likely see the writing is on the wall when it comes to the future of ARM. ARM processors top Intel in the area of power consumption over performance. They are very efficient. ARM also has more momentum than Intel (see this chart over at this Cnet article).

(see this great Wikipedia article on the history of the ARM Architecture here.)

Even Nvidia has announced an ARM-based CPU for future supercomputing and high-end PCs. Nvidia announced at CES 2011 this year that they are taking aim at Intel with “Project Denver.”

And just this week IDC predicted ARM would capture 13 percent of the PC processor market by 2015. That assumes we can still “uniformly differentiate” the PC market from the MID market (mobile internet device market).

The Mac on ARM

So combined with what we know about ARM today, and what those like IDC are predicting about ARM tomorrow, and with a common sense approach to extrapolating Jobsian logic, it would appear more likely than not that Apple has already started the move to ARM for the Mac.

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