Apple Chip Defection Would Be Slap in the Face to Intel

Online speculation is starting to pick up speed that Apple is looking to ditch Intel chips and move to ARM-based processors for its Mac line of laptops.

While this rumor has surfaced before, if there's actual fire behind the smoke, it could mean trouble and a real loss of face for Intel, which is increasingly confronted with a burgeoning ARM effort.

"An Apple defection from the Intel processor would be more of a slap to Intel 's rep than to their bottom line," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. " Apple is selling a lot of systems, but Windows-based PCs still account for 90% or more of the total market."

The Web site SemiAccurate started the latest round of rumors Thursday, reporting that "Apple is going to show Intel the door, at least as far as laptops are concerned." The Web site added that this won't happen for two to three years, but that it is a "done deal."

And Apple, the story reports, is moving straight to ARM-based processors.

Intel would not comment on the report, and Apple could not be reached.

Meanwhile, Intel announced this week that it has developed 3D transistor technology that should position the chip maker to better take on ARM in the lucrative tablet and smartphone markets.

Tablets have been cannibalizing the PC market, with consumers and some enterprises so enthralled with the smaller gadgets that they're not as inclined to buy laptops and desktops. Intel hasn't been able to get solid footing in the tablet market, where ARM-based processors are gobbling up the lion's share of it.

That means Intel is seeing more competition from more directions than it has in quite some time, according to Charles King, a principal analyst with Pund-IT. Suddenly, Intel doesn't have to just worry about AMD , but also has increased competition from Samsung on the memory side, and now ARM.

King noted that with ARM-based chips getting more attention, if Apple decided to trade in Intel for ARM chips, it would be an embarrassment, if not a tremendous business loss.

"The idea of ARM supplanting x86 has been around for awhile," King said. "Nvidia's been pushing it for awhile, and Microsoft 's announced intention to support ARM caused a small firestorm at CES in January, so it's reasonable to assume that Apple may be mulling the idea ... But overall, the rumor emerging less than 48 hours after Intel announced Ivy Bridge makes it suspect to me."

Olds also is skeptical of the speculation.

"What people seem to be overlooking is that current ARM processors are 32-bit, meaning that they can only address a max of 4GB memory," he explained. "This is a showstopper in terms of system performance and user experience. A move to ARM would require every ISV in the Apple software and hardware ecosystem to port their code to the new processor, just like they did when Apple moved from Power to Intel chips -- except they had Intel helping out with that change. "

Others, such as Computerworld blogger Jonny Evans, suggest the claims could be a bargaining chip by Apple , as it negotiates new contracts with its suppliers.

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, said now is the time for Intel to move to keep Apple exactly where it is.

"They need to prevent this move, and barring that, they will have to aggressively discredit Apple and their products to keep the industry from following them," he said. "Even in their very powerful 'Intel Inside' days and before Steve Jobs came back, [Intel was] reticent to take Apple on directly. But if they don't successfully challenge Apple's position as the market leader in terms of technology and they lose Apple, most of their desktop business will be lost and folks are already starting to experiment with ARM servers."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

Read more about processors in Computerworld's Processors Topic Center.

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