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Why Apple can’t abandon Intel

intel macs macbook pro apple intel processorsRumors about Apple’s switch away from Intel are not hard to find. Bloomberg just published an article, based on undisclosed sources, which says Apple could move away from Intel at some time over the next several years. Other rumors over the past year have said that the company might have an interest in acquiring the struggling AMD.

Apple certainly has the money for such an acquisition. The tens of billions of dollars Apple has floating around would be more than enough to buy a number of other companies. Every company designing chips today, excluding Intel and Samsung, would probably be within Apple’s budget if the company became serious about pursuing an alternative.

Yet the rumors remain rumors and, more importantly, they usually cite a timeline so vague it barely deserves the name. There is not yet any concrete reason to believe Apple is about to move away from Intel. And there are several excellent reasons to think they won’t.

Performance still matters

Intel achieved its current position of dominance because of the company’s unwavering commitment to performance. It’s a large company, and one that’s always had a strangle-hold on the market. Intel has one of the industry’s most aggressive product schedules and is constantly throwing wads of cash into research.

Performance has been the fruit of this labor. Intel’s only direct competitor, AMD, has absolutely no products that can answer the power of Intel processors sold at $200 and above. ARM? Forget about it. Even Intel’s Atom is much quicker than the fastest products from chipmakers committed to ARM. The most convincing potential competitor is NVIDIA’s “Project Denver,” an ARM processor that’s being built to compete with Intel in laptops and desktops.

NVIDIA has been suspiciously silent about it over the last year, however. It’s likely a long way from store shelves and no one knows how it will perform next to current Intel products, nevermind those available a year or two from now. This means there’s no company Apple can buy to become competitive. It will have to grow its own product.

Apple has shown that it can design excellent ARM processors. Still, these efforts are hopelessly behind the capabilities of Intel’s least exciting laptop and desktop parts. Even a company as wealthy as Apple has no hope of designing a chip competitive with Intel’s processors over just a few years.

The fabrication problem

Designing a processor architecture is half the battle; production is the other half. Production is handled by gigantic factories usually known as fabrication facilities (fabs). They are fantastically expensive to build and can only be improved by conducting fantastically expensive research.  

Intel, unlike its competitors, produces all of its own chips. It has nine fabs and seven test facilities. Two new fabs are due to open in 2013. If the fabrication portion of Intel was suddenly left on its own, it would be among the world’s largest fabrication companies and would also be the most technologically advanced. Intel is years ahead of the competition.

Apple would be at a major disadvantage from the start without fabrication technology on par with Intel. Bloomberg’s article cites TSMC and Samsung as possible partners, but neither is on par with Intel. Nor is GlobalFoundaries, the collection of former AMD fabs that now operates as an independent company. 

There is not a company in existence today that can match Intel’s fabrication. Apple could only compete by purchasing an existing fabrication company and then spending huge sums of money, and many years, playing catch-up.

Business sense

It’s true that there are areas where Intel could improve. Though wonderfully efficient, the company’s mainstream processors still consume too much power to last all-day when paired with the meager batteries found in slim laptops like ultrabooks and the MacBook Air. Intel also remains weak in integrated graphics, which has been a minor issue for the Retina MacBook Pro. A selection of chips with similar performance and efficiency but faster integrated graphics would be perfect for MacBooks.

Yet the MacBook represents only a small part of Apple’s current sales. In Q3 of 2012 the company sold 17 million iPads, 26 million iPhones and 4 million Macs. Trying to develop a chip on par with what Intel makes for laptops would only benefit the MacBook because such a design would consume too much power for smartphone or tablet use. It’s hard to believe that the company would invest so much money to (maybe) give a (small) boost to its least popular product line.

Even if Apple does succeed and manages to craft an acceptable processor for laptop and desktop applications, what then? Intel supports itself by selling chips. That’s its business. Apple is not in that business and presumably would not be selling chips to potential competitors. Without the profit from those sales, could the company justify the cost of designing and fabricating its own products? That seems doubtful.

Fan fiction for geeks

Apple rising up to meet Intel in an epic battle of technology is the kind of thing that technology enthusiasts would love. It’d be wonderful to watch and would likely result in new innovations from both companies. Yet, when examined critically, it’s a conflict that reads more like fan fiction. It makes sense for the spectators but not for anyone involved.

I do think that Apple may eventually release a MacBook that offers an ARM processor and runs a variant of iOS or a new operating system that’s meant to replace both iOS and OS X. It’s the abandonment of Intel that I doubt. If Apple released an ARM-based MacBook, it would probably debut as an entry-level compliment to the Intel-powered lineup – not a replacement.