Follow-up on the possibility of ARM-based Macs

Matt Richman really wants Apple to ship ARM-based Macs. Let’s look at his latest points:

1. User Experience Would Improve

Richman — who discloses that he owns 56 shares of Apple and 50 shares of ARM — writes:

If Apple’s chip design team can create a phone processor that performs on par with Intel’s fastest tablet chip, the company’s “highest priority”, then there’s no reason to believe that the same team at Apple can’t design chips powerful enough for any Mac in the company’s lineup.

Maybe. As discussed, it’s not as simple as cranking the processor machine to 11 and standing back.

He continues:

Apple has already released a line of A-series chips tailored specifically for iOS devices, and the company is most definitely working on a line of B-series chips tailored specifically for Macs. When that B-series chip — or set of B-series chips that runs in parallel — is ready, Apple will be able to switch to ARM-based Macs without sacrificing user experience. On the contrary, because the company is no doubt designing its line of B-series chips in tandem with Mac OS X, there would be iPhone-like hardware-software optimization, improving user experience.

Initially, ARM-based Macs would be a step backwards in terms of user experience. Even if Apple could ship a ARM-based Mac that’s as fast x86 Macs, Apple would be sacrificing Windows compatibility, which is a huge deal for many business users, including yours truly.

Additionally, going with ARM would give Apple a slightly better opportunity for “iPhone-like hardware-software optimization,” but the truth is that Apple is already heavily involved with the design of the Intel-powered hardware inside its Macs. The MacBook Air sleeps and wakes nearly as quickly as an iPad, and the Mac Pro sings a tune that no generic PC can.

2. Apple Would Make More Money Per Mac And Sell More Macs

Going from chip concept to manufactured product can be broken down into two separate and distinct steps. The first is chip design — figuring out what features the processor will have and how it will work. The second is manufacturing — turning a file that exists on a screen into a physical product you can hold in your hand.

Today, Intel designs the chips in Macs and manufactures them, profiting on both of those steps. But if Apple substituted Intel’s chips for its own ARM-based designs, an external company would profit on only one step of the chip creation process, not both, leading to a decrease in the cost of building a Mac. By my conservative estimate, Apple would be able to drop the price of the base model 11- and 13″ MacBook Airs by $50 and still make more profit per unit on each than it currently does.

As John Siracusa spoke about in episode 77 of ATP, Apple would face significant issues in fabricating a Mac-caliber desktop ARM chipset. Intel wouldn’t bump their own production back to do it, and while Apple does have a shit-ton of cash, it may not be able to spin up a fab shop easily, let alone cut prices on machines.

3. Apple Would Be Able To Create Better Macs

There are clear advantages to Apple using ARM chips in their machines. Battery life could be insane and the things could run cooler than ever. There’s even this, which I haven’t thought about in quite a while:

Apple wouldn’t have been able to create Touch ID if the iPhone were powered by an Intel chip instead of an Apple-designed one. There wouldn’t have been a “secure enclave” on the iPhone’s processor to store the fingerprint data, nor would there have been perfect hardware-software integration. Apple was able to implement Touch ID because it designed the A7 chip in tandem with the iPhone 5S’s software and the rest of its hardware.

Touch ID would be killer on a Mac, but it’s not enough to change the reality that in 2014, the possibility of an ARM-powered Mac shipping anytime soon seems low.