What it is: PCs rely on Intel’s x86 processors while mobile devices mostly depend on ARM processors, but Apple has designed their own ARM-licensed processors.
In the early days of PCs, many mainframe computer users dismissed PCs as “toys” running underpowered processors that couldn’t do any real work. Eventually PC processors got more and more powerful, yet if you examine the processing power of a supercomputer, it still runs faster than the processors of PCs. The reason why people didn’t completely ignore PCs was because they were still useful despite being less powerful than mainframe and supercomputers.
When mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) started growing in popularity, PC enthusiasts dismissed them as “toys” running underpowered processors that couldn’t do any real work. Gradually, mobile processors have increased in power. Apple designs their own ARM-based processors called the A10 Fusion, which has recently been benchmarked to be slightly more powerful than a 2013 Mac Pro running an Intel Xeon processor. Given another generation, it’s not hard to imagine Apple’s A series mobile processors becoming more powerful than Intel’s desktop processors.
Now the big question is if Apple’s mobile processors are faster than Intel’s desktop processors, will Apple eventually abandon Intel? The short-term answer is no, but the long-term answer is yes.
The biggest anchor keeping the Macintosh wedded to Intel processors is the ability to run Windows and the legacy of older Macintosh programs compiled to run on Intel processors. When Apple shifted from PowerPC processors to Intel processors, they had two secret goals working behind the scenes.
First, they had been developing OS X for Intel processors for years at the same time they were developing OS X for PowerPC processors. More importantly, they also created a translator program called Rosetta that would let PowerPC programs run on Intel processors flawlessly.
So if Apple plans to transition from Intel processors to their own A10 processors, they need a similar feature, or something different altogether. Most likely, Apple is gradually positioning the Macintosh to run iOS on ARM processors.
That would mean compiling software for both OS X and iOS, which is fairly simple since both operating systems are based on the same core code. That would also mean creating some sort of translation feature to allow Intel compiled programs (including Windows) to run on ARM processors, and that’s the huge technical challenge.
Yet, Apple has taken nearly a year off between updating Macintosh models. They wouldn’t be doing this unless they were either foolish and ignoring the Macintosh market, or if they were planning something big, such as a new Macintosh lineup that runs on ARM processors.
The future is mobile and the future is ARM processors, not Intel. Most likely any ARM-based Macintosh will lack crucial compatibility features of today’s Intel-based Macintosh models, but give it time and the ARM-based Macintosh models will just keep growing in power and capabilities until they completely surpass Intel-based Macintosh models. When that happens, Apple can drop the older Macintosh models and focus entirely on ARM-based Macintosh models.
Perhaps Apple may even create a new name so the Macintosh would run Intel processors and this new computer lineup would run ARM processors. To avoid confusion, this new lineup could have a completely different name so nobody would get confused between the Macintosh and ARM-based computers.
Whatever happens in the future, the future is clear. Intel is not the future but ARM processors are the future. The shift to the new world won’t come without pain and frustration, but it’s going to come eventually. Get ready because the future always comes faster than you might expect.