Is Apple Gearing Up To Challenge Intel’s Desktop CPUs?

There has been rampant industry speculation lately that Apple is gearing up to replace Intel’s desktop CPUs with its own proprietary chips, which would certainly fit well in the company’s vertically integrated strategy, and it appears that it has built ARM compatibility in its macOS.

Is Apple Gearing Up To Take On Intel’s CPUs?

Apple’s Touch Bar may not be that exciting, but if one were to believe the word on the street, it appears that Apple might have another much larger plan lurking in the shadows. We are traipsing into “unconfirmed” territory here, which we often avoid unless there is a compelling reason to do so (which in this case, there is), so consider yourself forewarned.

Test results of Apple’s iPhone 7 A10 Fusion processor recently popped up online, indicating that it scored 3490 on the Geekbench 4.0 single-core benchmark. The ARM-based A10 also purportedly has an A10X variant for the iPad that scores even higher in the benchmark (4236), but the vanilla A10 is already on competitive footing with some of Intel’s Core m-series laptop processors. Given the precarious nature of TDP limitations inside of a slim iPhone, it is natural to assume that Apple could scale the A10’s design upwards into larger and more powerful variants, thus providing a challenge to Intel’s desktop PC dominance.

Of course, Apple’s strategic intentions behind its budding chip production capabilities would likely be designed to supplant Intel CPUs in its own Mac products, as opposed to offering them to the broader enthusiast market. Unfortunately, the compatibility issue rears its ugly head. Apple based its macOS on the x86 architecture, which doesn’t play nicely with ARM. Apple’s possible strategy could be to simply use an enhanced version of its mobile OS for its future desktops, or perhaps it could simply engineer macOS to work on the ARM platform.

This is where the strategic maneuverings may get interesting. According to the Dutch-language Techtastic.nl, Apple has infused its macOS 10:12 Sierra kernel with compatibility for an ARM “Hurricane” family and has a mechanism to use existing apps on the platform. According to the site:

The source code shows that Apple has stopped supporting some Intel processors, including the Intel Core 2 Duo of the first generation MacBook Airs, while at the same time has added support for the ARM Hurricane family.┬áIt seems to be here a reference to one of Apple’s own chipsets, as the A7 microarchitecture was described as Cyclone, the A8 as Typhoon and the A9 uses the Twister architecture, all based on the instruction sets from ARM.

The transition to a larger A10 Fusion with more cores would be quite the feat, but in light of Apple’s seemingly quick developmental trajectory, it is certainly a possibility. If Intel lost Apple’s business, it would equate to an immediate loss of nearly 7.4% of the desktop PC market, and since Apple’s A10 cut its teeth in the mobile segment, it already has a low power focus, which means larger versions could be competitive in Intel’s cash-cow data center segment.

All of this seems a bit far-fetched, and it’s notable that Intel is always moving forward (albeit incrementally) on the performance front, so by the time Apple fields competing SoCs, Intel could have already surpassed them.

In either case, it’s interesting. The CPU market needs more competition to push prices down and performance up, but I’m not sure that Apple is the savior that we should look to, largely due to its history of high-priced products. AMD is the clearer threat to Intel, unequivocally, but Apple seems to be making significant headway in the fast-moving semiconductor world.

It’s more likely that Apple will use the mere threat of its capabilities as a crowbar to force Intel to offer it big discounts on volume CPU shipments, which it will most certainly not pass on to us. Investors, rejoice!

All of this would be great news for TSMC, which appears to have locked up A10 production due to its innovative InFO (Integrated Fan Out) packaging technique, which increases density by combining multiple chips without a substrate.

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