A new Bloomberg report claims Apple is working on its own CPUs for the Mac, with the intent to ultimately replace the Intel chips in its computers with those it designs in-house.
According to Bloomberg’s sources, the project (which is internally called Kalamata) is in the very early planning stages, but it has been approved by executives at the company. The report says that Apple could ship computers based on its own processors as early as 2020, but the report also says this would be part of a “multi-step transition” in a larger effort to make iOS devices and Macs “work more similarly and seamlessly together.” Apple could still change or drop these plans in the future.
This is the latest in a long series of Bloomberg reports that has lifted the veil off of the inner workings and strategies at Apple, including a related story about a project the company has dubbed Marzipan. That project’s goal is to enable software developers to create and publish apps that would work in both iOS and macOS. An app would be usable with either a touchscreen or a mouse/trackpad, depending on which device is running it. Apple hopes to introduce that as early as this year; if it does so, it will likely be announced at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in June.
In today’s report on the Kalamata project, Bloomberg also notes that the revised Mac Pro will arrive next year and that it, too, will include an Apple-developed chip similar to the T2 chip found in the iMac Pro. Bloomberg also says other Mac laptops will receive Apple-developed chips this year.
The MacBook Pro with Touch Bar currently uses that chip’s predecessor (the T1) to manage the Touch Bar, among other things. We’re reading Bloomberg’s aside on this topic as a suggestion that at least some of the T2’s capabilities will hit the company’s laptop lineup as well, either in the T2 itself or in a new chip.
When Ars reached out to Apple for confirmation or clarification on all of the above, the company declined to comment.
Why would Apple do this?
This is a very old Apple rumor—it has popped up numerous times since Apple announced its switch from the PowerPC architecture to Intel in 2005. However, Bloomberg’s track record on Apple scoops has been strong of late. Additionally, the timing is far better for this effort now than it was in previous years, although there would still be significant downsides and challenges. And should the company go all in on this strategy starting now, the transition would likely take years.
We wouldn’t be surprised if many of the prior rumors were earlier explorations that Apple abandoned because the time wasn’t right yet—in other words, this might be something Apple has wanted to make happen for a very long time. There are several reasons why the company likely finds this so attractive.
Freedom from the Intel roadmap
Apple’s Mac lineup has been beholden to Intel’s roadmap for more than a decade, and that has produced some negative results for Apple in the past.
After the Retina MacBook Pro was introduced in 2012, the MacBook Pro’s internals went for painfully long stretches without major new features or performance improvements. Consumers waited more than 500 days between a modest refresh and the release of 2016’s Touch Bar models. While there were likely multiple reasons for the gap, serious delays for the CPUs that best suited that machine in Intel’s roadmap surely didn’t help.
Designing its own chip for the Mac would mean Apple would mostly only have to wait on its own processes and its manufacturing partners to iterate the Mac lineup. Infrequency of updates for Macs has been a constant point of consternation among Apple users, and those updates have often been tied to Intel’s progress.
A faster path to differentiation
We only need to look at recent Apple products to see Apple’s desire to build custom hardware to differentiate its products from competitors in the marketplace. Apple’s custom built A11 processor for the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X has several features that are either entirely unique, or distinct in execution, compared to common chips from Qualcomm used in other devices.
Apple’s products are built on an ideological foundation that says superior user experiences, better performance, and faster innovation and iteration of new features are possible when the company has control of all aspects of both the hardware and software it’s shipping with its products. Dependence on Intel runs counter to that ideology, but it has been a necessary compromise to keep Macs competitive and to make it easy to entice developers to make software for them.
This is where timing matters. Apple now has a great deal of experience designing its own chips. Rumors of ARM processors in Macs recently came true with the previously mentioned T1 and T2 chips in the MacBook Pro and iMac Pro, respectively. Apple even switched to designing its own GPUs in iPhones recently.
The A11 is a culmination of years of hard work and optimization in a line of Apple-designed chips that have powered the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and more. The result is highly competitive performance; our own benchmarks show the A11-based iPhone X and iPhone 8 outperform most other flagship smartphones at a wide range of tasks.
This would likely not be the case when comparing an Apple-designed chip for the Mac with offerings from Intel, which are focused heavily on performance. However, other comparative advantages could be achievable—battery life, for example. Technical leads at Apple may have developed confidence that the exact cocktail of power usage and performance Apple desires is more achievable with its own designs than it is with Intel’s.
Leveraging the iOS software ecosystem
As mentioned previously, reports suggest that Apple has already made progress setting the stage for Mac/iPhone/iPad app interoperability. Bringing iOS apps to the Mac gives the Mac access to a new, vibrant, and robust software ecosystem—that’s welcome, as the Mac App Store has struggled to gain as much traction.
Apple already plans to discontinue support for 32-bit Mac apps in the near future, so the software support situation for Macs is only going to get worse. Some of the Mac’s popular apps, like the Twitter app, have been discontinued in favor of web apps that are easier to support multi-platform. In contrast, the iOS ecosystem has only gotten stronger in recent years.
The details of Apple’s efforts to make apps interoperable are not yet known, but both platforms running on the same architecture would make that much easier to achieve and support. The company has already made some moves to bring them closer together, like its rollout of the shared APFS file system.
It’s a long journey ahead
Those are the rosy ideas. Now we get back to the current reality: the platform might not be ready for this change yet.
While it makes sense for Apple to start sailing on this journey now, it likely won’t arrive at its destination (total independence from Intel) for several years—likely well beyond the 2020 date that Bloomberg names as the earliest launch window for a first Intel-free Mac. If an Apple chip-powered Mac arrives in 2020, it could be a specialized product in a Mac lineup that still mostly includes Intel-based computers.
It was that transition from PowerPC to Intel that helped Macs achieve mainstream viability. Macs have become popular among software developers creating applications for a variety of platforms—most notably iOS, but also the web, Android, and cross-platform applications that target the macOS or Windows machines using that x86-64 architecture on which Intel maintains such a firm grip.
That development community needs the ability to easily develop for multiple platforms, and suddenly moving the Mac to a completely new architecture could jeopardize that. If Apple loses developers on the Mac, it loses the foundation of that iOS App Store success story.
When Apple has switched architectures in the past, it has done so gradually, taking great pains to ease the transition for users and developers. Even the transition from 32-bit to 64-bit apps on iOS and macOS have been approached conservatively. The company will have to take a similarly cautious approach if it plans to move away from Intel.
There are Apple consumers who would already be open to non-Intel Macs. For those who primarily use their computers for the same things for which they use phones and tablets—email, Web browsing, and basic productivity—improved battery life, lower cost, persistent connectivity, and reduced weight and size would be attractive. This strategy could make those things a reality for Apple laptops. We’ve already seen ARM-based Always Connected PCs offering some of those bullet points on the Windows side.
But there are also numerous Mac users for whom this would be a most unwelcome change—at least in the next several years. Don’t expect Apple to ditch Intel overnight. For all its ambition or hubris, we’re hoping even Apple knows better than that. Besides, it could change course again at any moment should the winds prove unfavorable.