2019 Tech Predictions: Apple Moves Closer to Ditching Intel on the Mac

Intel's days may be numbered.

The Mac could pave the way for a new era next year, as speculation mounts that Apple will ditch longtime processor supplier Intel in favor of its own chip designs. The company has quietly transformed into a chips powerhouse, packing its iPhones and iPads with chips that rack up benchmark scores rivaling those of recent MacBooks. Inverse predicts that Apple will lay the groundwork next year in preparation for an Apple chip-powered Mac launching in 2020.

“Intel simply hasn’t been keeping up performance-wise with the competition,” Jesse Cohen, senior analyst at Investing.com, tells Inverse. “Apple’s legal problems with Qualcomm have led it to start working on its own, in-house developed hardware, leaving longtime partner Intel behind. The move would have big ramifications for the chip sector, particularly for Qualcomm and Intel.”

We’re reporting on 19 predictions for 2019. This is #14.

The Mac has undergone two major processor switches. The first, in 1994, saw Apple switch from the Motorola 68000 series to PowerPC. Apple announced a transition to Intel in 2005, citing better performance per watt that would enable the firm to produce faster laptops. The switch also meant the Mac could install and run Microsoft Windows natively.

In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone. It uses an Apple-designed processor based on the ARM architecture, which has gradually moved from an obscure component to a key aspect of iPhone marketing. The “A12X Bionic” chip found in the latest iPad Pro clocks a GeekBench score of 5,083 for single-core performance and 17,771 for multi-core performance. By comparison, the 13-inch mid-2018 MacBook Pro clocks 5,129 and 17,643 on those respective scores, despite coming in a bigger package and using a fan to dissipate heat. Apple introduced the tablet by claiming it delivers the same graphics performance as the Xbox One S console despite being 94 percent smaller. Intel’s impressive performance suddenly doesn’t seem all that impressive.

The 2018 iPad Pro offers big graphics boosts.
The 2018 iPad Pro offers big graphics boosts.

Mac Takes a Bite Out of Apple

There’s a lot of reasons why Apple might switch, but the evidence also suggests the company has been working toward this goal. Apple-built chips have made their way into the Mac, starting with the T1 chip that handles the touch bar on MacBook Pros from 2016 onwards. The T2 chip, found in most of Apple’s 2018 Macs, handles more functions like camera control to offer better security.

On the software side, Apple has also brought parts of its user interface kit from the iPhone to the Mac, expected to launch fully in 2019, that will enable iPhone app makers to bring their apps over easier. That has nothing to do with the chips inside the Mac, but paired with a hardware switch, it could make developing for both platforms simpler.

Rumors also point to an upcoming move. An April report claimed it would come in 2020, currently under the codename “Kalamata,” and is aimed at integrating all of Apple’s devices. The report also noted that it could be a big loss for Intel, which derives about five percent of its annual revenue from Apple. Another report later that month claimed a switch would coincide with the launch of new augmented reality glasses.

“I cannot comment on anything that is not released as public information,” Mika Kitagawa, senior principal analyst at Gartner, tells Inverse. “However, I would believe that Apple could go with their own development of CPUs. I don’t think this is because of their relationship with Intel. But it would be driven by the idea that they can be in control on the development with their own schedule and create the roadmap that can be suitable for their product management overall. Thus I would not be surprised that they will go with their own.”

Everything’s Swell With Intel

A switch is not a done deal. Apple could choose to play it safe and hold off on executing a full transition, particularly as such radical moves involve some teething pain. Intel Macs couldn’t run PowerPC-designed apps out of the box, so Apple had to release a translation tool called Rosetta (a reference to the Rosetta Stone). Newer applications came in a “universal binary” format that packed PowerPC and Intel versions into one bundle. Despite these measures, some features hit the chopping block: the Classic Environment couldn’t run on Intel Macs, meaning users could no longer run applications designed for Mac OS 9.

Boot Camp is likely to be a casualty in any future switch. The software allows Macs to run macOS and Windows on the same machine natively, swapping between the two is easy. Microsoft has developed a version of Windows 10 for ARM-based devices, but it’s unclear whether Apple would support it on its own chips. Even if it does, Microsoft has to provide a compatibility layer to support Intel-designed apps. Consumers will lose the ability to run older Windows apps at full speed.

19 Predictions for 2019: What Inverse Thinks

Apple’s switch to Intel sent shockwaves in the industry, but it may be time to bring the chip-making in-house. Such a move would enable the company to leverage its chip-making talents across the board, uncouple its dependence on a third parties and enable tighter integration across its lineup. Inverse predicts further moves in the coming year that heavily hint a switch is on the way.

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