When Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) unveiled its next generation iPad, known as the iPad Pro, it made some pretty bold claims about the performance of the A9X chip that powers it. According to the company, the A9X delivers 1.8 times the CPU performance and twice the graphics performance of the A8X found inside of last year's iPad Air 2.
Perhaps more interestingly, though, is that Apple claimed the A9X is faster than 80% of the portable PCs shipped over the last 12 months in CPU tasks and 90% of portable PCs in graphics performance.
If Apple's claims are to be believed -- and after seeing the performance of the A9 chip inside of the iPhone 6s/6s Plus, there's no reason not to -- then Apple has built a processor that can go toe-to-toe with the low-power Core i-series processors of Intel (NASDAQ:INTC).
Should this worry Intel investors? Let's take a closer look.
Why would Intel investors worry in the first place?
There has been plenty of talk over the last several years of Apple potentially replacing Intel inside of some, if not all, of its future Macs. As the performance of Apple's processors has improved, this development has seemingly become increasingly plausible.
Although the loss of the Apple Mac business wouldn't be a crippling blow to Intel from a financial perspective, the loss of what is probably around $4 billion in annual revenue (assuming platform average selling prices of around $200) at around 60% gross profit margin (~$2.4 billion in annual gross profit) would hurt. A lot.
I believe that with the A9X, Apple will have a processor that offers enough performance to credibly power something like the 12-inch MacBook and even the MacBook Air. If Apple wanted to, I could see it investing in widening the dynamic range of its mobile processors to cover the performance requirements of something like a 13-inch MacBook Pro.
In terms of performance, if Apple isn't already there with the A9X, then I have no doubt that it could get there by the time it rolls out the 10-nanometer A11X chip in late 2017. In that case, I would expect Apple to start letting the developer community know of the impending architecture transition (which, to my knowledge, it has not).
Why, as an Intel investor, I'm not worried
The fact that Apple is fielding processors with the kind of performance levels that it is might actually seem unnerving to Intel shareholders. After all, isn't the reason that Apple uses Intel processors in the Mac is that they offer the best performance/power in the industry?
I would argue that, even if Apple were to reach performance parity with Intel processors, the fact that Apple would have to undergo a painful and costly software transition from x86 to the ARM (NASDAQ: ARMH) is probably an unattractive prospect.
The only reason I could see Apple going through the pain of a costly architecture transition is if the iDevice maker lost confidence in Intel's long-term product roadmap and felt that it could genuinely deliver a better product without Intel inside than with Intel inside.
It really comes down to whether you believe in Intel's execution
At the end of the day, I believe that whether Apple continues to stick with Intel or if it opts to use an in-house processor is ultimately in Intel's hands.
As long as Intel can continue to deliver leadership notebook-class processors year after year, I think Apple will continue to use its processors broadly across its Mac lineup.