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You are here: MacNN Forums > News > Tech News > Apple VP Mansfield could be leading Intel-to-ARM switch

Apple VP Mansfield could be leading Intel-to-ARM switch
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Nov 6, 2012, 02:29 AM
 
A fresh report from Bloomberg has reinforced rumors that Apple may be developing its own chips for use in its Mac range in addition to its mobile products in years to come. If true, it signals a transition from Intel chips and would help to contextualize Apple's move to make Bob Mansfield the head of its new "Technologies" group, which is combines research into wireless, battery and semiconductor designs. At the time of Apple's announcement of its executive reshuffle, it noted that the new group under Mansfield has "ambitious plans for the future."

According to Bloomberg, Apple's engineers believe that the its mobile chip designs using ARM architecture will soon have enough performance to power its Mac notebooks and desktops. "Three people with knowledge of the work" provided the information to Bloomberg, two of which also expressed the view that such a development is almost inevitable as the features of the mobile and desktops continue to merge. With the departure of the former Apple VP of iOS, Scott Forstall, Apple's current iOS and Mac OS development teams have now also been unified under the leadership of VP Craig Federighi, lending further credibility to the report. Apple's newest mobile chips, the A6 and A6X, utilize a custom-designed architecture compliant with the ARMv7 specification. They have also been revealed in benchmarks by Anandtech to be potent, scoring wins in numerous benchmarks when compared against the competition. In particular, the quad-core graphics performance of the A6X design crushes all comers, while the triple-core GPU found in the A6 as used in the iPhone 5 similarly leaves its competition trailing. If there has been a shortcoming with Intel's recent notebook chip designs, it has been the relative performance of their integrated GPUs. Samsung's newest Chromebook is also the first to drop Intel processors in favor of an ARM-designed dual-core Cortex-A15 design that has also been shown to outperform the previous generation of Intel's Atom dual-core processors. ARM is also currently working on 64-bit designs that are due to arrive by the end of 2013 and make their first appearance in 2014. With Mac OS X now a 64-bit OS, it is unlikely Apple would make any such transition before this time, although it has previously been rumored that Apple has already been testing MacBook Air-like designs with ARM-based processors. While the overall performance of the newest ARM designs may not yet be powerful enough for Apple's high-end designs, it is conceivable that its MacBook Air line of notebooks could be the first to make the transition away from Intel processors. With iOS derived from the full Mac OS X kernel, Apple is already effectively running a variant of the Mac OS X system that is optimized for ARM chips. With the wealth of software already made for iOS devices, a switch to ARM-based designs for its Mac line could be relatively easy to accomplish if it ultimately chooses to make the switch. Apple's 2010 acquisition of Instrinsity and 2008 buyout of PA Semi, two chip design startups specializing in low power designs, positioned it so that it could offer better hardware differentiation between itself and the competition in the mobile space. This has been manifested in the performance of the A6X design in the fourth-generation iPad, which leaves even Samsung's new Exynos 5 Cortex-A15 processor found in the vaunted new Google Nexus 10 trailing in its wake. Mobile users who have been touting Android over iOS because of the processing power of Android hardware are beginning to realize that Apple is quickly developing significant mobile CPU and GPU advantage. It would seem that Apple is intent on continuing this trend across its portfolio, as it further aims to differentiate itself from the competition in both software and hardware. When Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple in late August, 2011 he said "I believe Apple's brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it." Jobs was, of course, instrumental in the acquisitions of both Intrinsity and PA Semi. It seems that his legacy will continue to shape Apple for many more years to come yet.
     
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Nov 6, 2012, 02:56 AM
 
I don't mean to be the voice of caution. However, is not there significant technological mindshare at stake with such a transition? All of the software binaries for the Mac would have to be recompiled to support a "fat binary" to facilitate the transition to the ARM architecture. Unless ARM sign a cross-licensing agreement with Intel, Thunderbolt could well be dead with not viable standard to support ARM. There would be instant concern as to the longevity of the ARM processor advantage over Intel chips. With so much cash for R&D, I see no reason Intel could not out-maneuver ARM once the game switches to desktop capability.
     
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Nov 6, 2012, 04:59 AM
 
“Three people with knowledge of the work” gets tiring. If these are current or former Apple employees, they know that any future product or product direction is off limits to people from Bloomberg. I'm tired of reporters who won't give their sources and also tired of people who won't keep their mouths shut. We, as consumers, don't have any legal right to this information yet we constantly believe that someone actually told these reporters this information. Yes, there are corrupt people but I strongly believe there are a whole lot more corrupt reporters making up stories to line their pockets and manipulate the stock market. If this is actually on the drawing board, then I dare these "people with knowledge" to stand up and speak for themselves. Of course they won't........
     
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Nov 6, 2012, 06:28 AM
 
Apple certainly needs to do something to give at least some of its laptops double-digit battery lives. Maybe ARM will do that. Maybe talking about shifting to ARM will pressure Intel into creating some highly efficient designs.

The latter would save a lot of trouble. Platform shifts are a real hassle.
Author of Untangling Tolkien and Chesterton on War and Peace
     
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Nov 6, 2012, 06:43 AM
 
We've already seen this happen twice with Apple: 68k to PowerPC, then PowerPC to Intel.

Each transition has been as "smooth" as one could hope for when radically switching processor families. It's a necessary evil: we saw the limits of 68k and moved to PowerPC, then the limits of PowerPC (clock speed, thermal ranges) forcing a move to Intel, and now, with mobile devices quickly becoming the de-facto computing platform, a move from Intel to the power-sipping ARM architecture.

Yes, fat binaries. Yes, potential emulation or instruction translation. Yes, the next few revisions of Mac OS X and the whole "Rosetta" thing all over again. But we'll get through it.
     
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Nov 6, 2012, 07:19 AM
 
I work in a number of extremely typical technology environments where the ONLY reason people, schools, or institutions were willing and/or able to invest in Apple hardware was because after the move to Intel chips there was true high-speed full Windows compatibility. This has been a crucial point in the purchasing decisions of at least 9 out of 10 Apple "converts" in my area. And I'm talking about a sample-size of hundreds here, not just "a few of my friends". Just one of my work environments has a user-base of around 150, ALL of whom absolutely REQIRE that their Macs run Windows software just as well as a Windows PC. Even when we move onto the more-subjective and flawed purely "friend" level, many of my friends have moved to Mac after years and years of foot-dragging, with the key selling-point again being absolutely perfect and seamless full-speed Windows capability. This is just a "fact of life", and it is a fact that Apple better pay very close attention to. I see no evidence that a move away from Intel chips will benefit Apple or Apple users greatly, and I see plenty of evidence to suggest that it would cause many current Apple owners to be forced to change back to the Windows platform. That's not even taking into consideration the gamer-community, a small portion of whom have finally been able to make the move to Mac due to BootCamp. Sure, that's a pretty insignificant portion of gamers, but Apple still isn't in the position to begin giving-away market segments. If this rumor is true, I thnk it's gonna spell big trouble...
     
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Nov 6, 2012, 07:37 AM
 
Originally Posted by panjandrum View Post
I see no evidence that a move away from Intel chips will benefit Apple or Apple users greatly, and I see plenty of evidence to suggest that it would cause many current Apple owners to be forced to change back to the Windows platform. That's not even taking into consideration the gamer-community, a small portion of whom have finally been able to make the move to Mac due to BootCamp. Sure, that's a pretty insignificant portion of gamers, but Apple still isn't in the position to begin giving-away market segments. If this rumor is true, I thnk it's gonna spell big trouble...
Would your opinion change if you knew that Microsoft were building a 64-bit version of Windows for Arm?

http://www.pcworld.com/article/2013405/arm-microsoft-collaborating-on-64bit-windows-version.html

I see this as more of a hedge than anything right now. ARM is up and coming, and Apple would be remiss not to get OS X working on ARM just in case. That said, Intel has proven itself to be able to fend off all comers thus far; so, I wouldn't count Intel chips out by a long shot.
"My friend, there are two kinds of people in this world:
those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig."

-Clint in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"
     
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Nov 6, 2012, 08:37 AM
 
"We need absolute, 100% compatibility and parity with the Windows operating system!"

"I've got the solution -- let's buy a bunch of Macs!"
     
   
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