Apple has never been scared to break with the past in order to move ahead. When they moved from Mac OS 9 to OS X/macOS, they offered some backwards compatibility but terminated that once they figured users had enough time to update. They did the same when they shifted from the Power PC platform to Intel processors in 2005, providing Rosetta as a way for older PowerPC apps to run on the new processors. And if reports are correct, we can expect another transition as Apple moves from Intel to their own processor platform.
Over the last few years, Apple has designed their own custom processors for iOS devices. They started with the A4 processor in 2010, updating it in 2013 from 32-bit to 64-bit with the A7, leading us to today’s A11 processor. Each successive generation was faster and more capable than the one before.
When Apple introduced the Intel x86 processors to the Mac, Steve Jobs mentioned that Apple had been building in-house prototypes Macs that ran OS X, as it was then, to run on Intel’s gear. In fact, every version of OS X had been built to run on both Intel and Power PC systems. So, when the time came to make the change, Apple was ready.
Today’s report by Bloomberg shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I’d be more surprised if Apple hadn’t been building their own Macs running A-series processors.
Why even bother?
Apple has always been a company that craves control. Part of that control is the ability to vertically integrate its entire supply chain. While Intel CPUs gave Apple a massive benefit – Jobs noted the performance per watt of energy was a significant factor – it also meant Apple was beholden to Intel for new processors which meant their product development was tied to Intel.
And while Apple has been partnering with Taiwanese chipmaker TSMC since at least 2014 to make the processors, the chip development has been lead by Apple, no doubt on the back of their transition of P.A. Semi in 2008.
Also, there have been rumours that Apple is planning to develop a universal platform where apps could run on any Apple device. That would open up the Mac to iOS apps and vice-versa. A common processor architecture, while not the only major hurdle, would solve at least one major headache for developers.
It could also herald the way for a multitouch capable Mac – something many Mac owners have been asking for.
What could a CPU change look like?
Apple’s experience in moving from the old Mac OS platform, to OS X/macOS and from PowerPC to Intel processors gives them great experience in managing major technology transitions.
In the first instance, I suspect we’ll see dual-processor systems that house both an Intel and A-series processor. Apple’s US$250B bank balance will help them wear the cost of such a move, even if that erodes the high margins they already command on their hardware.
Or we could expect some sort of expansion of the A-series processor to support x86 instructions. That would allow the one processor to run iOS and Mac applications natively.
According to Bloomberg’s source, the transition project, codenamed Kalamata, could bear fruit as early as 2020. When Apple transitioned to Intel, they offered developers Intel-based test systems that could then be traded in on Intel iMacs when they were released. I’d be surprised if a similar move wasn’t announced at Apple’s annual developer conference WWDC in 2019.
It’s possible, but unlikely in my view, that Apple will announce a processor shift at WWDC this June. More likely, they could mention project Marzipan – an initiative to allow iOS apps to run on the Mac.
That could be the surprise packet of WWDC and pave the way for the move in 2020.