Apple is no stranger to switching CPU instruction set architectures in its Macs when there's an advantage to be gained, and if a new report by Bloomberg is correct, the company could be on the verge of another such transition—this time, to ARM SoCs designed in-house. Such a move could ultimately evict Intel's CPUs and chipsets from Macs.
Bloomberg speculates that the move would begin in Apple's thin-and-light notebook PCs, followed by higher-power and higher-performance systems as Apple's chip-design efforts matured. The report suggests that Apple could begin powering Mac products with its own silicon as soon as 2020, a move that would likely need to be well under way by now given the length of silicon product-development cycles.
Although rumors of Macs with ARM SoCs inside have swirled for years, this report breaks at a time when Intel's ability to deliver next-generation CPUs and new microarchitectures appears to be hampered by nagging troubles ramping its 10-nm process. Since fall 2015, the blue team has moved its Skylake microarchitecture to refined versions of its 14-nm process and increased the number of those cores on a chip, and it's also introduced more capable versions of those cores for servers, workstations, and high-end desktop PCs in tandem with a new on-die interconnect.
Even with those moves, that work means Intel has been working on the "optimization" phase of its "process-architecture-optimization" cadence for quite some time. The company claims to have shipped 10-nm CPUs to customers last year, but those shipments have so far not translated to products that consumers can actually buy. Troubles with 10 nm have, by some accounts, already torpedoed products like the next-generation Knights Hill Xeon Phi accelerator.
Those delays might be holding back Apple's ability to design and introduce new, higher-performance Macs, and it's possible that Cupertino has had enough of waiting. Now that Apple has designed and produced its own CPUs, graphics processors, security coprocessors, and even platform controllers, it may be feeling confident enough to test the waters with a complete PC-class platform of its own.
Such a move would hardly be a stretch in a mainstream thin-and-light PC, given the performance of Apple's own iPad Pro family, though it's an open question whether Apple's silicon teams could design top-to-bottom replacements for the Xeon W CPUs and Radeon Pro Vega graphics processors that power the latest iMac Pro. That kind of performance and capability from Apple silicon likely remains many years into the future, and it's not even clear that Apple would go to the effort given the size of that market niche versus more mainstream users.
Of course, building Macs around its in-house silicon gives Apple complete control over its own platform, a philosophical point for the company that might outweigh any concerns about ISAs or performance. According to Bloomberg, the move would deprive Intel of about five percent of its annual revenue, but it's hard to say just how much it's worth to the blue team in goodwill to have its processors inside some of the most posh PCs on the planet. In any case, we have years to wait to see just how broad Apple's ambitions will be if Bloomberg's report is correct.