SAN FRANCISCO — A report that Apple's long-rumored transition away from Intel chips to its own Arm-based processor for Mac computers could happen as soon as 2020 sent the largest U.S. chip company's stock price down more than 6 percent Monday (April 2). According to at least one industry analyst, the potential loss of the processor socket in Macs is only one of two threats facing Intel's business from Apple.

"I think there is a double threat to Intel. Intel will also likely lose Apple's modem business once Apple integrates a modem into its mobile SoCs, which will likely be in the same time frame," said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research, in an email exchange with EE Times.

The Bloomberg news service first reported Monday plans to move Macs to custom, Arm-based Apple processors. Such a move would be consistent with Apple's moves in recent years to become more vertically integrated. It would also mimic what Apple did in the smartphone market and tablet, moving from Samsung branded processors to its own internally designed A Series processors beginning in 2010.

Jim McGregor
Jim McGregor

Apple began using Intel baseband modems in some versions of the iPhone 7 in 2016, a design win that was billed as significant for Intel's still-fledgling modem business.

The Bloomberg report, which cites anonymous sources, said the initiative to replace processors in Macs — codenamed Kalamata — is likely to be rolled out in a multi-step transition.

Kevin Krewell, a principal analyst at Tirias, told EE Times that Apple is likely to begin the transition with its thin Mac Air notebooks, then move to professional notebooks and later desktop Macs.

"Transitioning off Intel x86 processors is no easy task, but Apple has time to ensure they do it right. And with the software expertise Apple has, I have no doubt that they can do it," McGregor said.  

Kevin Krewell
Kevin Krewell

Krewell said Apple A Series processors have been growing more powerful with each generation and can run workloads similar to Intel's x86 processors. For the most part, instruction sets do not drive performance anymore, Krewell said, micro-architectures and process nodes do.

What the Arm instruction set lacks in SIMD performance, Apple can make up for by using its Metal 2 API and Core ML machine learning framework to accelerate tasks with GPUs, Krewell said.

Apple's Macs accounted for less than 1 percent of all PC sales last year, according to Gartner. Apple accounted for about 4 percent of Intel's sales last year and about 1 percent of its profits, according to investment firm Stifel.

Apple has been using Intel processors in its Macs since 2006. The announcement of the electronics heavyweights working together was made with great fanfare by Apple founder Steve Jobs and then Intel CEO Paul Otellini at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference in 2005.  

Steve Jobs (left) and Paul Otellini at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference in 2006.
Steve Jobs (left) and Paul Otellini at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference in 2006.

— Dylan McGrath is the editor-in-chief of EE Times.