Apple moves to ARM? No way in at least the next 4 years!

7 years ago Apple announced that they would be moving from PowerPCs to Intel’s x86 CPUs in two years because they had been producing less heat and running much faster (PowerPCs were built by IBM. The 8-core version of this chip also powers PlayStation 3 ). This was a very dangerous step, which definitely brought massive boost in performance for Apple products, but caused additional emulation layer to run the legacy applications.

Apple previously made a transition from Motorola’s 68K to PowerPC architecture, and included Motorola 68K emulator to run legacy apps. The same happened when Apple started using Intel chips, instead of IBMs in 2005 – the additional layer to run the older code was called Rosetta. Will it really be that painful, if Apple would change the architecture one more time?

This week brought us not only MS Office for Android and iOS confirmation, but also an article by Bloomberg, whose informer claims that Apple is thinking about moving from Intel chips to ARM ones, particulartly A6X to their Mac product line. Why is this really important?

This could be the biggest shift in Mac history.

Literally. The Macs now are the second biggest ecosystem and Intel chips helped Apple with the desktop expansion. Apple’s marketshare in PC reached 7.59%, and more than 12 million Macs were sold in 2011. That is a huge number for a single OEM with vertical infrastructure (it’s when a company maintains full-cycle production for its products: both develops software and designs, as well as produces the hardware). iOS domination in mobile space significantly helped in gaining worldwide market share. Apple took a clever way of delivering incremental updates to simplify and improve the OS. Even more: the design unification across all Apple’s devices made it very compelling to start using a Mac, if you already had an iPhone or iPad.

Source: StatCounter Global Stats – Operating System Market Share

Backwards compatibility (running current OS X apps) and mobile development

Some might say that Apple is not a freshman in architecture shifts, but moving from x86 can result in a big performance drop.

  • ARM processors are not as advanced as x86 (Intel core architecture)
  • ARM only plans to start 64 bit versions chips production in 2014 with AMD (64 bit version will deliver huge boost in performance for the same power consumption)
  • Good news: ARM already supports out-of-order execution, unlike Intel’s Atom processors (Next Gen atoms confirmed to support this feature)

There is a good chance, that Apple is already testing some prototypes deep inside its labs, but it’s a huge work on optimization to be performed, and the OS could become fragmented. As it is with Windows 8 on x86 and limited Windows RT on ARM.

ARM-supported version of OS X should include an emulator-cushion, same as Rosetta, Apple provided for PowerPC => x86 transition. AllthingsDigital states that there is an example: Russian Company successfully runs x86 software on ARM.

Such scenarios could happen: development-wise it’s Cocoa for the UI. And the app that calls windows will still do that on ARM version. Apple has developed an awesome IDE that simplifies the process of development between OS X and iOS. But running x86 code on ARM with the emulator could help if we’re talking about the simple applications that call the standard UI libraries and common stuff like that.

High-performance applications

But let’s turn to the elefant in the room: what will happen with the low-level applications? You can’t run Photoshop in emulator. Neither 3d Max, Office and many more. Meanwhile, these apps are crucial when it comes to the professionals working on Macs (mainly Macbook Pro / iMac). That’s why we are not that clear about porting a full-featured OS X to ARM. These apps will be needed to be fully re-written for the new OS.

Layers, OS X

One might argue that developers and customers still would buy new Macs so that they would create a market. And if a developer wouldn’t want to re-write an app, then money-hungry competitors would occupy the sunny spot and get all the money. The obvious issue is whether you could per se run a full 3D rendering suite on ARM. Right now there’s no way you could do that. We’re talking about something like 3DMax, Photoshop in particular.

We’d also like to point out high-performance games. We’re not talking about the hits like Shadowgun and Infinity Blade. Even if Infinity Blade is built on Unreal Engine, that doesn’t mean that it uses the fully featured one like on PC / XBOX. It’s a special ARM version, because ARM architecture is not capable of rendering complex shadows / advanced lightening / fully featured particles.

Macs just started to gain some traction in gaming space, you can see huge titles across Mac App Store, but ARM move will kill the gaming culture in Mac space. Same applies to Steam.

And one last thing: no Parallels for ARM.

Some more quick points

IDE & development ecosystem unification:

  • iOS developers gallore. We can bet – a lot of developers will emerge from iOS and help OS X in gaining apps
  • Desktop developers will get even easier porting. iOS userbase is much better than OS X’s. This could trigger even more great apps of iOS and further iOS growth (possible solution to compete with Android in the future)

iMac / MacBook for Work and Macbook Air differentiation

  • Macbook Air is the best selling Apple PC. Most people use it as a device to access the web, mail, office. Good candidate to include an ARM chip. As a result: much lighter and thinner gorgeous looking laptop, with no vents at all
  • MacBook Pro and iMac could be left for professional use (music / video editing / rendering / photos) with x86 chips
  • Possible creation of a whole new line of Macbooks for content consumption and text editing as an alternative to the MacBook Air

ARM is dominating in mobile world with almost no room left for the competitors. The latest collaboration with Google and Samsung is the new Chromebook, an affordable and very limited in functionality laptop for just $249. No wonder ARM wants to bite a piece of Intel’s market share, especially datacenters and servers. ARM CEO is confident in his company and promises even more amazing computing power to come in the nearest future.

These are the scenarios we can think of, when discussing such rumors. This in fact could be a mass hit: Microsoft was able to lower the power consumption and reach 10-hour battery life with x86 tablets. We are really living in a very interesting world.

Read this:

“Apple Said to Be Exploring Switch From Intel for Mac”, Bloomberg Original Article

Apple Looking to Drop Intel Chips From Mac Computers [REPORT], Mashable

Will Apple Switch the Mac to ARM? Why the Rumors Do — And Don’t — Ring True, AllthingsDigital

ARM Chief: It’s a bit early to write Intel’s obituary, AllthingsDigital

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