Will Macs Switch to an Apple Branded CPU?

After years of barely growing the number of Macs sold, in 2006 Apple moved to Intel CPUs – and sales took off immediately. Prior to 2005, Macs had peaked at 4.5 million units in 1995, dropped to 2.7 million in 1998, and hit a new high of 4.7 million in 2005.

Intel Core Duo InsideThat was a 35% jump in one year, and in 2006, Apple sold over 5.6 million Macs in a calendar year for the first time ever – another 19% growth in the number of Macs sold. Apple has had a lot more ups than downs since 2006 – 25% growth in Mac units sold in both 2010 and 2011, a 4.4% decline in 2012, lower growth rates since then, and a 9% hit in 2016.

In 2015, Apple sold over 20 million Macs – as many as it had sold from 1984 through the June 2005 announcement that it was switching to Intel. We may have loved our 680×0 Macs and our PowerPC Macs, but their numbers pale in the face of Intel Macs.

The Intel Era

Through 2017, Apple sold over 234 million Macs. Of those, 178 million were in the Intel era – that’s 76% of all Macs ever built being sold over a 12 year period, while it took Apple 22 years to sell the other 24% of Macs.

Annual Mac Sales, 1984 through 2017

Annual Mac Sales in Thousands, 1984 through 2017

In my mind, there is only one reason that Mac sales absolutely took off after the June 2005 announcement that Apple would migrate to Intel in 2006 – Intel. By using the same CPUs as the PC world, Apple no longer had to fight the GHz War, trying to explain why the PowerPC G3, G4, and G5 were really superior to Intel chips despite differences in clock speed.

The Real Reason

The real reason that Apple has sold so many Macs is that Macs can now run Windows out of the box. No more software emulators. No more DOS cards. All of the Intel-based Macs can natively boot Windows.

Not only that, but virtualization software made it possible for Macs to run Windows alongside Mac OS X, so Mac users would only have to use Windows when there was no equivalent Mac software and they wouldn’t have to reboot their Macs to use Windows.

Switching to ARM Is Not an Option

Rumor has it that Apple will transition the entire Mac line from Intel processors to its own ARM CPUs by the end of 2020. These are the CPUs that power iPhones and iPads, and they have plenty of power for those environments, but they don’t have one thing that Macs need.

Apple’s ARM CPUs simply can’t run Windows the same way an Intel processor can. They would have to use emulation, which is a big reason Windows was not very popular on Macs until the Intel era. Apple would be shooting itself in the foot by switching to ARM.

Another Path?

We live in an entirely different world than we did in 2005. Back then ARM chips were used in Palm PDAs and smartphones. The iPhone didn’t exist yet. The only real powerhouse chips were PowerPC, which seemed to have run out of steam, and the x86 architecture used by Intel, AMD, and some smaller companies. There was no way that an ARM processor could hold its own against PowerPC and x86.

That has definitely changed. We now have 64-bit ARM processors, ARM chips with up to 8 cores, ARM CPUs that go well past 2 GHz. They may not have the power to replace a Mac Pro, iMac Pro, or MacBook Pro, but they have the potential to be a new low-end solution, similar to Chromebooks perhaps.

Apple CPUs Everywhere

My guess is that Apple is going to put its ARM CPUs in every Mac made in 2020, but more as an auxiliary processor, leaving Intel chips to do the heavy lifting. Not only could ARM chips take some of the burdens from the primary CPU, they would also allow Macs to flawlessly emulate iOS devices and run the iOS software. Without on-screen input, iOS emulation would be a joke. (Anyone who has ever played with an Android emulator quickly discovers that a mouse or trackpad is a poor input substitute.)

Imagine a MacBook with an ARM chip that manages touch input using the computer’s display, handles input on the trackpad, oversees power management for the entire computer, and is always idling in the background waiting to hear, “Hey, Siri!”

That’s my guess. This would leave Macs with the distinct advantage of being able to run Windows natively for those few apps not available in Mac OS X, but it would also give Apple an edge that Windows PCs don’t have – a powerful ARM auxiliary brain that can run on the tiniest bit of electricity when the computer is sleeping.

Will It Boost Sales?

I suspect that Apple’s biggest problem when it comes to selling more Macs is Mac longevity. I use Macs ranging from 8 to 11 years old, and they serve my needs. By replacing hard drives with SSDs and putting in more memory, these Macs are far more than they were when they left the factory. I would really love an SSD in my iMacs and will do that eventually, and that will cost a whole lot less than a used Mac, let alone a current model.

To boost sales, Apple needs to offer users a reason to upgrade, a benefit that no existing Mac has. Intel plus ARM could do that. Your iMac, Mac Pro, Mac mini, or MacBook would always be listening for “Hey, Siri!” And when you need to run Windows apps, you’d have that option as well.

If Apple were to go this route, and this is purely my own speculation, I think it would make 20 million Macs in 2015 seem like a blip. The PC world would take years to catch up.

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