In 2005, Apple did what would have, at one time, been unthinkable for many users. That was the year it announced it would quit using the PowerPC chip it had been using for over a decade, and would instead start dropping Intel chips into its Macs.
Now, the company is getting ready to make what will likely be an equally big change. That's according to analyst Ming Chi Kuo, who says that Apple will launch a MacBook with a self-designed 5-nanometer ARM processor in the next 18 months. It's no secret that Apple is working to bring its chip design and manufacturing in-house. Those efforts appear to have intensified, most recently as it faces supply chain challenges related to the Coronavirus outbreak.
It's hard to overstate what a big shift this would be, and at the same time, it's been inevitable for a while. It's a big shift because it would mean that Apple would be ditching the traditional x86 processors that run most of the software Mac users are used to.
Other manufacturers have faced similar problems moving away from Intel, the Surface Pro X is a good example. That device comes with its own ARM processor designed by Microsoft, and it isn't able to run native x86 Windows apps yet.
At the same time, it's almost inevitable because Apple already uses ARM-based chips in the iPhone and iPad. The A12X chip powering the iPad Pro is in many ways as powerful as--or more powerful than--many of the laptops you can buy, including Apple's own entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro.
That would explain Apple's introduction last year of its Catalyst development program which allows developers to bring iOS apps over to the Mac. Apple has even started porting its own apps, including Music, Podcasts, and Apple TV, directly from iOS.
We should hear more about this at WWDC this summer, considering the time required for other developers to redesign apps. In fact, developers have started to point out that if Apple is planning to make this change in the next year, this would be a great time for a heads up.
That would make this WWDC the last WWDC before ARM Macs ship. If there is going to be a Developer Transition Kit this time round, now's the time. Apple gave a six-months heads-up for the Intel switch, provided SDKs and prototype hardware. What will happen this time? https://t.co/ASRVdQGOcM-- Steve Troughton-Smith (@stroughtonsmith) February 24, 2020
Most likely, Apple will start with a device like the MacBook Air, which is a perfect candidate for the new processor. The new architecture is expected to pack more power and be more efficient than Apple's current A13 chip in the iPhone 11 Pro, and substantially more efficient than the Intel Core i5 currently used in that laptop.
One of the most obvious benefits would be a much longer battery life than the 12-13 hours you get right now, which means getting more work done on the fly. The Samsung Galaxy Book S, another new competitor using an ARM processor, lasts 23 hours on a single charge. There are a variety of reasons for the difference, but the processor is certainly one of them.
Apple has its work cut out for it if it plans to make this change any time soon. It takes a lot of work for a company (even a giant one) to take control of its own product roadmap. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions now in order to deliver later. In Apple's case, it's a huge decision that's been a long time coming.