advertisement
advertisement

The Fifth Age Of Macintosh: What Happens If Apple Dumps Intel?

We know it would be a big deal. But only Apple knows what sort of future it envisions for its 34-year-old computing platform.

The Fifth Age Of Macintosh: What Happens If Apple Dumps Intel?
[Photo: Tyler Lastovich/Unsplash]

Apple uses its own purpose-designed CPUs for its iPhones and iPads, built around the ARM architecture. An article reported by Ian King and Mark Gurman, published by Bloomberg yesterday, says that the company wants to do the same for Macs and could start shipping computers with the new CPUs instead of Intel chips as soon as 2020.

advertisement
advertisement

As usual with such stories, the details are sourced to “people familiar with the plans” and Apple has declined comment. But I give this rumor a lot of credibility. Any such move would require the company to bring Mac developers into the loop as early as possible, so they can prepare their apps. If Apple is planning to do that at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference (which opens on June 4), then we’re now within that window of time where I would expect the pool of people who have access to that information to have expanded to include possible blabbermouths.

More than that, however, the move emphatically makes sense. Apple’s consumer desktop strategy since the introduction of the iPad has sounded out as clearly as the first five notes of “Shave And A Haircut” and at this point, the response “TWO BITS!”–in the form of an ARM-based Mac–seems inevitable. It’s compatible with so many of Apple’s goals and frustrations.

Faster and better Macs come along at a glacial pace, a fact that Apple can’t wholly blame on Intel. But Apple’s dependency on Intel’s CPU roadmap and release dates isn’t helpful. And Apple has a holistic approach to hardware design that has paid off well for both Apple and its users. Practically every major component inside an iOS device has been purpose-built to enhance the performance and the role of every other component, and the same goes for the relationship between the operating system itself and the overall hardware. The iPad Pro–which is every bit as powerful as almost any consumer-grade laptop–soars thanks to a level of design intimacy between iOS and Apple’s custom A10X processor that wouldn’t be possible if it used an off-the-shelf CPU. It wouldn’t get ten hours of battery life, either.

And what better way for Apple to protect the Mac from the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities that affect nearly every CPU design in existence than to build a whole new CPU?

Designing its own Mac CPUs would also simply allow Apple to control a bit more of its own destiny. This is another foundational concept that gets Apple hardware designers all worked up.

I have no doubts that Apple has already ported MacOS (note proper capitalization; how embarrassing that Apple keeps misspelling it as macOS). By the time Apple announced the Mac’s transition from PowerPC to Intel in 2005, the new OS had been finished and idling in the driveway for a good long while. Besides, iOS and MacOS are both built on top of the same software kernel; porting to ARM isn’t as big a job as porting PowerPC to Intel was.

advertisement

True Disruption

A move like that would still cause a lot of disruption. Not the fake kind, where college students who were about to flunk out of Stanford anyway announce that they’re leaving to launch a startup that’s going to totally disrupt how the world rents carpet cleaning machines. No, I mean the kind where developers do a lot of math and some of them decide that the revenue that their apps generate isn’t enough to justify the time (and thus expense) required to make them work with Apple’s next step for the Mac.

So much disruption, in fact, that Apple would almost be obligated to cause a whole lot more. Have you ever had to replace squeaky rotten subflooring in your kitchen? Yes? Then you already know where I’m headed; feel free to skip the next paragraph.

As for the rest of you: well, see, you’re going to be without a kitchen for the duration. All of the counters have to come out, so it’s new counters. Might as well get new cabinets to match the new counters. Do we really want to move that 1980s stove back in? And so long as we’re ripping up the floor and exposing so much of the plumbing anyway, why not move the sink to a better location? But if the sink’s going to be over there, you should put in a bigger window. Speaking of that, maybe there’s space for sliding glass doors that lead out to a new patio?

See, disruptive change is an opportunity to consolidate a lot of unrelated pain into a single, horrifying ball and get it all over with at once.

Which is why I can easily picture a plan to build ARM-based Macs that’s part of a bigger plan to change the whole character of the Mac. For years, MacOS has looked decidedly frumpy and unloved, and its few significant improvements (such as TouchID) have been iOS’s hand-me-downs. Maybe that’s because Apple has been sitting on some huge and wonderful ideas that’ll boost the Mac into a higher orbit, and they’ve put off rebuilding MacOS until they had a good reason to tear it all down first.

Or…maybe Apple’s longterm goal isn’t to transition MacOS into the next decade (or, hell, even just our present one). Maybe its goal is to transition Mac users to iOS. Apple’s obsessive love for the iPad has been made clear to me by both my observations of the product line and my conversations with people inside the company (present and former). It doesn’t seem ridiculous that Apple might push the Mac much closer to the character of the iPad, with the iPad Pro picking up enough of the Mac’s character and functions that the whole consumer Mac line would become redundant.

advertisement

I can see a near future in which the only Apple hardware that behaves anything like what we’d recognize as a Mac today are the Mac Pros. These are the pricey workstation-class machines that benefit the most from Intel’s top horsepower; I don’t want to even take a guess as to how long it would take for Apple to build CPUs strong enough to do what an iMac Pro does. So if you use Macs for making movies, apps, visual effects, and machine learning models, rest easy: I think your Macs are safe from the red banner of revolution.

The rest of us are in an itchy spot. The functions of a basic laptop such as the MacBook Air could easily be met by an ARM chip, I reckon. And the latest generation of consumer MacBooks already look like iPads (and involve painful sacrifices, at least if you aren’t a fan of their almost-zero-travel keyboards). Why wouldn’t Apple make them act like iPads, too? In the absence of any visible sign of Apple’s eagerness to make great consumer Macs, it’s a tough question.

Also, although the classic keyboard-screen-pointer paradigm of desktop operating systems is here to stay, more and more of their functions are being bled off by mobile devices. Cloud services allow consumers and institutions to upgrade their notebooks and desktops less frequently. Apple’s doing well in notebooks: KGI says that shipments of MacBooks will increase way faster than those of iPads or iPhones (16-17% versus 7-10% and 6% for iPads and iPhones, respectively). But most of those MacBooks will be MacBook Pros—workstations.

Apple, unfettered by nostalgia, has shown no reluctance to drop a product that’s selling “okay” in order to boost another Apple device with a brighter future. Does the company want to move its consumer-level users away from the Mac and into iOS? It doesn’t exactly seem unlikely.

One Way Or Another, A New Era

This supposed 2020 transition away from Intel is just a rumor. It could be a huge move that Apple will announce in June at WWDC. Or it could just be an idea that Apple is looking very closely at. I used to get hot tips about an Apple-branded TV by the double fistful. Apple ultimately chose to go in another direction.

Regardless, the Fifth Age of the Macintosh is at hand. We just don’t know what form it’ll take. The first age began with the original 1984 Mac. The second age was marked by maturity and stability of the environment that came with Mac System Software 6 in 1988. 2001’s OS X did nothing less than save the entire platform. And when Apple finally figured out notebooks—around 2006-2008, with the introductions of the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air—the company brought the sexy back to the Mac.

advertisement

Which brings us to Five.

The next major step could be a revolutionary spin on the Mac that goes way beyond merely keeping pace with modern computing and makes the Mac into an influential platform once more. We can even dare to hope that by building its own CPUs, consolidating the Mac’s hardware design further, and incorporating iPad manufacturing methods, Apple can finally produce a great Mac that sells for way under $900.

Or, it could be equally significant as The Last Version Of MacOS That Apple Ever Ships.

I’m hoping for the former, but I wouldn’t bet either way.

Andy Ihnatko is a veteran technology journalist. He is also the longtime co-host of the MacBreak Weekly podcast on the the TWiT network and a regular contributor to WGBH Boston radio.

advertisement
advertisement