Early last week, a fresh report from KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo resurrected the ongoing rumor that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is preparing to ditch Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) in favor of its own custom-designed processors to power Macs. This storyline has been beaten to death but has persisted for at least five years. Kuo went so far as to predict this could happen within the next one to two years, with an ARM-based Mac potentially shipping in 2016.
Following Intel's earnings release, CEO Brian Krzanich appeared on CNBC, where he played down the possibility of losing the iBusiness. Here's the thing: Apple could still ditch Intel eventually.
He said, she said
When asked point blank about the recent rumors, here was Krzanich's response on Intel's relationship with Apple:
I just hear the same rumors. Here's my perspective. Our relationship with Apple is strong and their products are great. Apple is always going to choose the supplier who can provide them the most amount of capability in innovation for them to build on, for them to innovate. They're a company based on innovation. So our job is to continue to deliver parts that have that capability, that are better than our competitors. And then they want to use our parts.
So I wake up every morning making sure that across the board, whether it's Apple or Lenovo or Dell or any of our customers -- we have to provide the most competitive part: performance, price, reliability, all of those.
Certainly, all of the above is true. The companies' relationship has indeed developed quite a bit in recent years, and Apple does have some influence on Intel's road map, such as its big push toward integrated graphics. It's also true that none of Intel's suppliers can supply Apple with processors that are competitive enough to make the company switch.
Reading between the lines
But Krzanich failed to acknowledge the other strategic reasons Apple would want to transition away from Intel. Namely, Apple places very high value on vertical integration, control, and hardware/software optimization.
Transitioning Macs to its own ARM-based chips would provide Apple with tremendous benefits on all of these fronts. It would have tighter control over its supply chain, the future road map of its processors, and be better able to optimize performance and power efficiency for its hardware and software. Apple could also cater the design of its A-chips to its specific needs since it, unlike Intel, would not be selling them to other OEMs.
There is, of course, also the matter of immense cost savings. While we don't know what type of volume discount Apple has scored from Intel, rest assured those chips cost a pretty penny and comprise a notable chunk of Mac component costs. Conservatively, Apple could easily save over $50 per unit, which adds up pretty quickly considering that it shipped 18.9 million Macs last fiscal year.
We've waited this long, what's another couple of years?
The biggest challenge with ARM-based Macs is likely performance. Apple doesn't want to unveil a new lineup of ARM-based Macs in which performance regresses from the previous generation. If Apple can't say that these are the "Most powerful Macs we've ever created," it probably won't make the switch.
But Apple has made incredible progress with its A-chip design and performance in recent years, and the performance gap is narrowing quickly. The most recent A8X easily surpasses low-end Intel Atom chips in performance, and is approaching Core i3 territory. Designing custom processors that can catch up with Intel's performance is no easy undertaking, which is why this storyline has been around for so long.
The fact that investors have been talking about this for years doesn't invalidate the very likely possibility that Apple is interested in ditching Intel; this type of switch just takes that long to even become a viable possibility. Even if Apple doesn't release an ARM-based Mac in 2016, it probably will one day.