Over the weekend, Alcaraz Research (which is just one blogger) published an article over on Seeking Alpha considering the possibility that Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) rumored forthcoming 12.9-inch iPad Pro could benefit from an Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) chip inside.
The basis for this speculation is the idea that Apple plans to market the rumored device to creative professionals, which is based on recent reports that Apple may include a Force Touch stylus with the larger tablet. This, combined with the fact that Microsoft is enjoying reasonable success with its Surface lineup, points to the need to support industry-standard software application suites such as Adobe PhotoShop and Autodesk AutoCAD. The full native versions of PhotoShop and AutoCAD are, of course, only available on x86 systems.
Alcaraz believes that a Core M or Core i5 would be the ideal processor for the iPad Pro. The article even believes that the iPad Pro should run OS X -- not iOS. Alcaraz also cites Intel's most recent tablet reference design, implying that it could be the foundation of the iPad Pro. Sadly, these suggestions will never materialize.
A tale of two operating systems
First, let's acknowledge the fact that OS X and iOS are built for completely different processor architectures: OS X runs on Intel x86 chips, while iOS runs onApple's own a-chips from ARM Holdings. The two platforms are also built on entirely different interface foundations. iOS was built from the ground-up to be a touch-based interface, while OS X has long powered Macs that rely on keyboard and mouse input.
The importance of this distinction cannot be understated, since that difference is precisely why iOS has been so successful in the first place. When Microsoft failed to popularize tablet form factors in the early 2000s, it was because Windows was not optimized for touch interfaces -- the software giant attempted to modify the existing interface, using a finger as a proxy for a mouse pointer. Fingers are whole lot less accurate than mouse pointers, and no software application was optimized to accommodate for this fundamental difference. It didn't work.
This is why Apple can't simply put OS X and an Intel chip into an iPad and call it a day, nor can it use an Intel chip with iOS. OS X has no first-party support for touchscreen input, while iOS can't run on x86 architecture. Apple has made it quite clear that it wants to keep its two platforms separate, believing that any other course leads to significant compromises that the company is not willing to make.
Reference designs are intended for smaller OEMs looking for a faster way to bring products to market, often white-label ODMs. These companies lack the resources to develop and design products from scratch, so they rely on licensing designs from larger companies and then subsequently modify them for their own purposes. I'm pretty sure that none of that applies to Apple.
While hardware rivals continue to build all-in-one convertibles and Windows 10 has distinct desktop and tablet modes, Apple is content embracing two computing paradigms.
It's not happening
Another important reason why Apple embarked upon its proprietary custom-designed chip strategy in 2010 was that not only does it retain development control over the processor roadmap, but it also saves quite a bit of money while doing so. Even as Apple invests heavily in chip development, those investments scale very nicely when you consider the sheer volume of iOS devices that Apple ships. The company has sold nearly 280 million iPhones and iPads combined over the past four quarters.
If anything, this storyline will head the exact opposite way than Alcaraz predicts. A-chips will likely infiltrate Apple's Mac lineup in the foreseeable future, while I don't think Apple will ever put an Intel processor into iPhones or iPads. That rumor has been floating around for years, and the performance gap between Apple A-chips and low-end Intel processors gets thinner every year. It might take several more years, but an ARM-based Mac is a serious possibility. An x86-based iPad is not.