No more Intel???
2018-04-17 14:39:37

Last week much of the Apple news cycle was taken up by a report by Bloomberg that stated our favorite fruity company was going to ditch Intel processors for their own homegrown CPU's. While this is intriguing it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and we'll explain why.

A Brief History

Apple has changed the processors that it has used in its computers twice before, which is unheard of in the industry. Apple's first processor ditch happened in March 1994 when they introduced the Power Macintosh line with the the PowerPC 601 chip. Until that point, Apple had been using members of Motorola's 68000 family but those chips were nearing the end of their life. A new architecture was needed if the Macintosh was to survive.

Motorola had intended for the 88000 family to be a full 32 bit RISC processor and be the sucessor to the 68000, but due to mis-steps and delays, the 88k never took off. Separately in 1992, Motorola had been working with IBM on a scaled down version of the the POWER line of processors and intended to kill the 68k family off after the 68060. So Apple had no choice but to change processors. The PPC line offered a lot of advantages over the 68k line with IBM coming to the table with an established big iron processor.

Apple joined the Motorola / IBM alliance and became an active partner in the PPC development and much joy was felt in the Macintosh world. For 11 years Apple enjoyed the capabilities of the PPC chips and flaunted their processing prowess over Intel chips at every chance they got. AIM and Intel were taking two different approaches to processors with the latter developing CISC (complex instruction set computing) and AIM developing RISC (reduced instruction set computing) based upon the IBM POWER instruction set.

All that processing power came with some drawbacks for Apple though. Most notably was the difficulty in taking an already power-hungry chip designed for mainframes and trying to get it to work in battery operated devices. Apple was able to place the G3 (PPC 750) into laptop computers without too much trouble, but by the time G4 (PPC 7400) chips hit the market, it started getting much harder. Apple's PowerBook G4 laptops were notorious lap warmers and the fans and heat-sinks constantly struggled with keeping the processor cool under even an average compute load. With the G5 on the horizon and no clear way to make a reasonably sized laptop that didn't burn its owner, Apple had to look elsewhere or abandon the ever increasing laptop market.

Swallow your pride

Apple began quietly working on porting its operating system over Intel based processors and looking at how to integrate the 'rivals' chips into their products. With Intel, Apple now had a way forward with a chip line that was available across a variety of platforms - from laptops to servers. And that brings us to today.

Both of these previous changes occurred because Apple had no choice if it wanted to keep moving forward and releasing competitive products. Motorola was no longer going to produce the 68k line and when the PPC line just wasn't progressing into the lower power market as quickly as needed, it too had to be scrapped.

Neither of these previous cases fits with where Apple is right now. Intel has lines from the low-end to high-end and everything in between. Apple has no clear reason to leave Intel right now, so why go? And why is there very little questioning of these facts and instead telling everyone how great it will be for Apple to no longer rely on Intel.

Getting in good graces

The Apple arse-kissing began almost immediately with most sites touting what a good thing it would be for Apple to develop their own processors in-house. Macworld and MacRumors offered us a utopian view of how wonderful the world without Intel would be. These can only be seen as either trying to stay in good graces with Apple (similar to Fox News and Donald Trump), or Apple purposely putting good press articles out to grease the wheels of change-avoiding users. Neither of these seem plausible for the plain and simple fact that Apple has no reason to ditch Intel completely, or even at all. I think we've mentioned that already.

Let's say they do

If Apple were to throw Intel to the curb, this would put a long-term nightmare squarely on the shoulders of Cupertino. Apple has trouble keeping its product lines up to date (cough) MacMini and Mac Pro. Imagine if Apple was not only responsible for keeping the computer up to date, but also keeping the CPU up to date. They're good, but not that good. There would be a minimum of three distinctly different processor lines that would need regular updates and improvements - mobile, desktop and high-end. Each would have their own very different requirements, not to mention the need for support chips to connect each processor to the slew of buses and interfaces that each device might have. All of this on top of the processors that Apple already designs for its mobile products like the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch.

Does Apple really have the acumen to undertake this? We think not. As stated, they can't even keep devices up to date with Intel regularly churning out new processors. Apple will soon be rubbing their head and patting their belly.

Does Apple have talented chip designers - Yes. But everything that Apple has developed in-house has been for the mobile and low-power market, tablets and phones, where battery life is the most important feature. That which works for a phone, won't work for a Pro-type computer and vice-versa. At the low end battery conservation is paramount, while at the top end raw power and multi-processing are key features.

What could Apple be working on?

Apple has continually moved forwards with their own chips for the iPhones and iPads and it is not outside of reality to push that a bit into the laptop arena. We could easily see new low-end laptops based upon the 'A' series of processors. Think something between the MacBook and iPad Pro. It has been awhile since Apple has done anything with the MacBook Air lineā€¦ Hmmmm.

Apple can also continue its efforts of the 'S' and 'T' line of SOCs (system on a chip), integrating them into not only laptops, but desktop and pro machines as well to improve bus transfers, handle security etc. This make more sense than suddenly deciding that Intel doesn't have / won't offer / can't do what Apple needs. Intel has bent over backwards on things for Apple in the past trying to get more of their business.

In short

If Apple was truly looking at replacing Intel we think that there would have been a large number of 'help wanted' signs showing up and the slew of chip-designers suddenly working for Apple would have surely shown up on someone's radar. You can't easily hide the number of engineers and designers it would take to create and support processors for the MacBook, MacMini, iMac and MacPro.