According to Macotakara, a Japanese publication which has had some pretty good successes predicting future Apple moves, Apple has a modified MacBook Air running inside its test labs. The new machine has an Apple-branded, ARM architecture A5 chip buzzing away inside it instead of a sliver of silicon made by long-term CPU partner Intel.
The unusual rumor, which apparently has leaked from inside Apple's super-locked-down test facility, tallies with some previous hints. And now, with Apple making special efforts to get U.K. and even Australian journalists to attend its WWDC show in two week's time, there's some thinking we'll see a surprise unveil of a new product.
Macotakara was previously pretty accurate with its leaked information about the iPad 2—it correctly described the smaller bezel, flatter back, and bigger speaker that characterize the new design, and it guessed these in late December 2010, long before Apple confirmed the device. This suggests Macotakara has itself a pretty highly placed source inside Apple. Knowing how compartmentalized Apple is inside its high-security labs (with engineers working on code, for example, not being allowed to see the product they're working on because it's shrouded in a black cloth), we're guessing the mole has access to final stage prototype products. Does this mean Apple really does have a late prototype-stage A5-powered MacBook in its hands? Sure seems possible.
Assuming they do, what does this mean? Is Apple about to reveal that it's ditching Intel and moving to an iOS computer so we can all have MacBooks that run for 24 hours? Though this is a tempting prospect we're rating this as zero percent likely, as it's just too big a step too soon. Next year, maybe—giving Apple time to program a whole new backend for OS X that supports ARM processors, but not yet.
Does Apple have some kind of mutant hybrid machine on the way—a refreshed MacBook Air that squeezes in an ARM chip and an Intel one so you can alternate between using it as an iPad clone with a keyboard or a more traditional Mac? This is much more plausible, though the space inside a MacBook is pretty cramped, and shoving in two CPUs may need a smaller battery (which, admittedly, would be made up for by the A5's much lesser power needs). To make it truly iOS friendly the motherboard would also need a gyro and a full three-axis accelerometer...but these are minute additions. And then there's the need for an 11-inch or 13-inch touchscreen. Hmmm.
Or is Apple merely trying a proof of concept for something that's pretty likely to happen in a year or so, when ARM chips are approaching the same computing power delivery as Intel's silicon does—but with potentially smaller power demands, for much more portability? This is where our money is. We're not going to see a Thunderbolt-sporting, A5-powered 24-hour battery MacBook Air unveiled at WWDC, because while it probably exists it wouldn't work fast enough or well enough for Apple to release.
On the other hand, Intel did just mention it could be comfortable making other people's chips, based on their own designs. Is this a tacit approval for Apple to swap CPUs, with Intel as the manufacturer happy to take a lower margin on its products because so many will sell?
We've got questions here! And soon we will all have answers.
[Image: Flickr user macinate]