ARM-based Mac rumors kick up again

One securities analyst discusses the possibility and the blogosphere goes nuts.

The old rumor of Apple moving the Mac lineup to ARM-based processors was revised last week, and almost immediately shot down by counterarguments pointing out the senselessness of such a move.

It started when KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has issued a report predicting that Apple might begin building Mac computers based on its custom ARM-based but retain the Mac OS X operating system, rather than adopt the iOS operating system.

Kuo was careful in his wording; he said Apple "might," not "would" build the ARM-based Macs. And he didn't say it would be a total lineup switch, like when Apple switched to Intel in 2005.

"Apple may launch Mac products that use own AP [Application Processor] in next 1-2 years. This prediction is based on the assumption that Apple’s self-developed AP performs at a level between Intel’s Atom and Core i3 and is good enough for Mac. Using self developed AP can help Apple better control the timing of Mac launches and Mac product features," Kuo wrote.

Kuo, as a financial analyst, approached the report from a business perspective and talked about how Samsung, TSMC, and GlobalFoundries would all contribute to future chip production. He also discussed the Apple Watch, stating Samsung is handling the primary production of S1 chips for the smartwatch and TSMC will take over responsibility for the S2 in 2016.

Now here's why I don't buy it:

When Apple moved from PowerPC to Intel, it did so because PPC was falling way behind Intel. There's no issue with Intel's performance. True, Intel threw Apple's Mac plans off a little due to the Broadwell delay. Then again they threw every OEM's plans off with the Broadwell delay and you don't see HP and Dell making their own chips.

While some may argue that there is a huge library of iOS apps, they are also designed for a portrait screen size, although they can rotate to landscape, with a much lower resolution than a desktop or laptop screen. They are designed for touch screen, not keyboard and mouse input. In short, every iOS app would need a significant rewrite and revision to work on an ARM-based MacBook Air.

And should Apple be foolish enough to go ARM across the entire product line, that would be suicide. Developers made the jump from PowerPC to Intel a decade ago but they are not going to do it again. As it is, traditional software development is dying out. Can you name any new startups doing desktop software and getting hefty venture money? If Apple leaps to a new platform, many of its old software OEMs likely won't make the jump. Plus, Macs currently have the Windows option thanks to Parallels and Boot Camp. Going to ARM, they lose that option.

I also question the potential market. A low-end Mac running ARM would not be a high selling device. Many Apple users are power users, particularly the creative community. People don't video editing or music recording want power, not a chip that's below the Core i3 in performance.

Some will point to the power savings of ARM vs. Intel. I counter with the argument that the screen is far and away the big power drain on the computer, not the CPU, followed by the hard drive. A 15-inch screen will draw as much power for an ARM processor as Intel. Would Apple really spend the kind of millions required to get a power savings of a few percent?

Others may point to the price savings, but it's apples and oranges. The expensive Core i7 chips used in high end Macs are for power users. Even the Mac Mini uses a Core i5. Why would Apple build something below the Core i3 in performance, when Steve Jobs famously said "Apple doesn't do cheap?"

None of it makes sense. Apple would have to spend too much for too little possible return. The only thing I see making any kind of sense is a 2-in-1 design for the iPad. This would give people a keyboard and ports, and then have the detachable iPad for tablet use. Other than that, ARM-based Macs make no sense.

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