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This Threat to Intel Corporation Probably Isn't Real

By Ashraf Eassa – Nov 18, 2016 at 7:07PM

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Another day, another set of speculation that Apple will dump Intel inside of its Mac products.

For about a decade, Apple (AAPL 1.98%) has used processors designed and manufactured by microprocessor giant Intel (INTC 7.61%) in its iMac desktop and MacBook laptop computer families. 

Apple iMac and MacBook computers. Image source: author. 

However, as Apple's chip design prowess has grown, primarily to support its non-Mac products such as the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch, speculation has run rampant that Apple would eventually build processors to replace Intel's in the Mac. 

Were that to happen, Intel's personal computer processor business would be negatively impacted, but Intel's business would be able to weather it (sales to Apple comprised less than 10% of Intel's total revenue in 2015). 

It still hasn't happened, though.  

Nevertheless, a new report from investment company Exane BNP Paribas (via The Street) suggests that Apple might be hiring engineers to build chips that will finally allow Apple to boot Intel out of the Mac.

Let's take a closer look at what the analysts had to say. 

Apple is hiring graphics engineers? You don't say!

The analysts reportedly point out that Apple's looking to fill 87 hardware engineering positions related to graphics processing technology.

Based on this, the analysts said that "the graphics job vacancies suggest that Apple is building a completely new chip design team, which in our experience points to a new application."

The analysts further went on to say that "the need for computing, CPU and/or GPU skills could point to a custom Apple chip for the Apple MacBook."

"It is entirely plausible that Apple could produce a beefed up 7 [nanometer] apps processor... capable of powering a MacBook in 2018," the analysts concluded.

I'm not buying it.

What else requires CPU and/or GPU technology?

Inside of every Apple iPhone and iPad is an Apple-designed applications processor. These chips integrate a whole host of technologies, including CPUs, graphics processors, image processing units, memory controllers, and more.

Microprocessor expert David Kanter recently revealed in an article published on website Real World Technologies that Apple has been using custom-designed graphics processors in its iPhone and iPad chips since the A8/A8X chips.

Previous Apple chips incorporated graphics processor designs licensed from graphics specialist Imagination Technologies (NASDAQOTH: IGNMF).

It is far more likely that the job listings indicate that Apple is trying to bolster the graphics processor teams that build technologies for Apple's iPhone and iPad devices rather than for its Mac products. 

So, about the Intel thing...

Only Apple knows if its long-term plan is to replace Intel's processors with its own chips. 

That said, a transition away from Intel processors and toward Apple-designed ARM processors across Apple's Mac lineup is unlikely to happen in the near-future, if it's going to happen at all. 

Indeed, all of the software that runs on the Mac -- both first-party and third-party -- would need to be reworked in order to properly function on ARM processors, as it is all designed around Intel's technology.

Yes, Apple has done such architecture transitions on the Mac before, but the last time that the company did one (moving from PowerPC to Intel), Apple gave developers ample notice so that they could get their software ready (the PowerPC to Intel transition was announced at World Wide Developers Conference 2005; the first Intel-based Macs didn't ship until WWDC 2006).  

To my knowledge, Apple hasn't given developers such a heads-up about a transition of the Mac from Intel to ARM. 

Nevertheless, the point here isn't whether or not Apple is ultimately planning to kick Intel out of the Mac; the point is that the fact that Apple is hiring experts to work on graphics processor technology is hardly evidence that Apple is planning to replace Intel in the Mac.

Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2018 $90 calls on Apple and short January 2018 $95 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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