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.

Computing

Intel expects Apple to transition Macs to ARM processors in 2020, report says

It has been rumored for some time that Apple could transition away from Intel to ARM processors, but a new report now claims that Intel is aware of the decision and that it could happen in 2020.
Computing

Apple is reportedly set to showcase a new Mac Pro at WWDC 2019 in June

Our Mac Pro 2019 rumor roundup covers all the news, leaks, and rumors about Apple's new machine, set to be announced sometime in 2019. Here's what Apple has said, what the experts think, and what we're likely to see with the new Mac Pro.
Computing

Is Ice Lake coming soon? Here's what we know about Intel's future chip design

Intel's Ice Lake may end up launching before the architecture it was supposed to replace. With hints of more announcements about the chip design in the very near future, here's everything you need to know about Ice Lake.
Computing

Microsoft's latest Surface Laptop 2 runs past the updated MacBook Air

Apple recently updated its venerably MacBook Air, giving it a sleeker and more modern design. That pits it against the Surface Laptop 2, Microsoft's update of its own traditional laptop.
Mobile

How to perform a reverse image search in Android or iOS

You can quickly use Google to search, and reverse search, images on a PC or laptop, but did you know it's almost as easy to do in Android and iOS? We explain how to do it here, whether you want to use Chrome or a third-party app.
Mobile

Be careful who you bokeh, jokes Apple’s latest iPhone ad

With iPhone sales under pressure, you'd think there wouldn't be much to laugh about at Apple HQ. But the company has seen fit to inject some humor into its latest handset ad, which highlights the camera's Depth Control feature.
Deals

Amazon cuts prices on the Apple Watch Series 3 for Presidents’ Day

The Apple Watch Series 3 is seeing the same price cut we saw during the Amazon sale just last week. So if you're hoping to pick up an Apple Watch for less than $250, this $50 discount from Amazon can make that happen for you.
Mobile

Flip from portrait to landscape as we reveal how to rotate a video on iPhone

If you've accidentally shot a video in portrait orientation and you want to flip to landscape, then this is the guide for you. We'll explain how to use iMovie to rotate a video on your iPhone or iPad for free and suggest alternative apps.
Mobile

The 2019 iPhone could put a charge into your other Apple gadgets

While it's not been long since the last iPhones launched, rumors for the next iPhone are already surfacing. Apple's 2019 flagship could include a variety of upgrades ranging from a new design to enhanced features.
Deals

It’s time to check out the best Apple Watch deals for February 2019

The Apple Watch has surged to prominence in recent years. If you're in the market for an iOS wearable, we've sniffed out the best Apple Watch deals available right now for all three models of this great smartwatch.
Deals

Need a new tablet? Here are the best iPad deals for February 2019

In the wide world of tablets, Apple is still the king. If you're on team Apple and just can't live without iOS, we've curated an up-to-date list of all of the best iPad deals currently available for December 2018.
Computing

Chrome is a fantastic browser, but is is still the best among new competitors?

Choosing a web browser for surfing the web can be tough with all the great options available. Here we pit the latest versions of Chrome, Opera, Firefox, Edge, and Vivaldi against one another to find the best browsers for most users.
Deals

Apple brings back the iPhone SE with a $100 clearance discount included

Apple is offering the iPhone SE on their online clearance store once again. With discounts of $100, you can get a brand new unlocked iPhone SE for as little as $249. This offer is only available while supplies last.
Deals

Looking to upgrade? These are the best iPhone deals for February 2019

Apple devices can get expensive, but if you just can't live without iOS, don't despair: We've curated an up-to-date list of all of the absolute best iPhone deals available for February 2019.