It's just a matter of time (two years?) before Apple makes its own Mac chips

Just as I think that Mac OS X and iOS will eventually merge into one operating system, I think that all of the company’s hardware devices will be powered by ARM-based processors in the not-too-distant future.

As the late Steve Jobs once said, Apple products work so well because the company makes “the whole widget.” There’s no reason to think that Apple isn’t interested in making its own processors. By designing its own chips, Apple can build hardware and software that work together better than any off-the-shelf processor. When it introduced its A7 chip for the iPhone, Apple described it as “forward thinking” and having a “desktop-class architecture.” 

The company describes the A9X chip in the iPad Pro faster than 80 percent of the portable PCs shipped over the last 12 months in CPU tasks and 90 percent of portable PCs in graphics performance. You can be sure that A10X and A11X processors are in the works.

Apple says that the A7 chip gives you CPU and graphics performance up to 2x faster than the A6 chip did. The iPhone 5s is the first 64-bit smartphone. With the 64-bit A7, Apple has made it possible for developers to take the 64-bit apps they’re written for the Mac and bring them to iOS 7. Think of the possibilities.

Apple certainly has the money to make its own chips. Admittedly, such a task would be a huge one, even for Apple. However, the groundwork has been laid.

In 2008 Apple bought P.A. Semi, a chip designer that made “energy-efficient processors based on the PowerPC architecture that Apple used in Macs for years before adopting Intel’s x86 chips.” In December 2008 the company picked up a 3.6 percent stake in Imagination Technologies,  a graphics chip maker.  In 2010, Apple scooped up Intrinsity, which specializes in ARM processors. This August Apple acquired Passif Semiconductor, which manufactures switch-based wireless transceivers with low power consumption and a small footprint.

It’s not hard to imagine all Mac laptops, iMacs and Mac minis using the descendants of Apple’s A9X system-on-chip (SoC) solutions in the near future — with the Mac Pro taking longer to make the switch.

On the other hand, Ashram Eassa of The Motley Fool makes a good point that even if (when?) Apple were to reach performance parity with Intel processors, the fact that Apple would have to undergo a painful and costly software transition from x86 to the ARM “is probably an unattractive prospect.” He adds that the only reason he could see Apple going through the pain of a costly architecture transition “is if the iDevice maker lost confidence in Intel's long-term product roadmap and felt that it could genuinely deliver a better product without Intel inside than with Intel inside.”

Good point. But I think that the overriding factor — for better or worse — is that Apple wants to — going back to the Jobs’ quote — “control the whole widget,” which includes software and hardware.

Plus, Seeking Alpha thinks Apple will design its own Mac chips for three reasons:

  • Apple is capable of scaling their custom ARMv8 core design to replace the Intel chips which power their Macs, thus unifying all their products under a single Instruction Set Architecture.
  • Apple could add custom hardware and accelerators to Mac chips and exploit them very well within the operating system and software applications to improve product differentiation and market share.
  • Apple’s profit margins would increase significantly if it were to use its own designed chips rather than Intel designed chips.