Popular Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) focused website Patently Apple recently put out a piece pondering whether the Mac maker's upcoming 12-inch MacBook will use either a next generation A10X processor (the successor to the A9X found inside of the iPad Pro) or a next generation Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) Core M processor.
I believe Apple will stick to an Intel processor rather than transition to an in-house chip. Here's why.
Intel's financial guidance provides a really good hint
According to the usually right Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo (via AppleInsider), the 12-inch MacBook is now Apple's best-selling PC product, with the 13-inch MacBook Pro coming in second. If this is the case, then I believe that if Intel had lost the spot in the next MacBook (something Intel would know at this point), such a development would have had a material impact on the Chipzilla's financial guidance for 2016.
At its most recent investor meeting, Intel said it expects revenue in its client computing group (CCG) to be anywhere from flat to up by a "low single-digit" percentage from 2015 levels. In light of this guidance, it's hard to believe Intel has lost its spot in the next generation MacBook.
Other reasons why such a move would be impractical
In order for Apple to release a MacBook with an A-series processor, it would need to make sure that all of the applications potential customers are interested in running have been rebuilt by developers to work on an ARM (NASDAQ:ARMH) based processor.
Apple would have little trouble in moving over its own applications; it would cost time, money, and manpower, but Apple is certainly capable of porting over native X86 applications to the ARM instruction set on an ARM-compatible version of iOS.
The bigger challenge, in my view, would be in getting third-party developers to port their applications over. Apple could certainly work with big developers to move their code over, but not all applications from the many different software vendors will be ready by the early 2016 timeframe (which is when I'd expect a new MacBook to launch).
To work around this, Apple would need to introduce some sort of emulation capability, similar to what Intel did on Android in order to support the execution of ARM-native apps. In applications that require emulation in order to run, I would expect a significant performance penalty relative to a native implementation running on an Intel processor and, if the application requires a reasonable amount of performance, a real degradation in user experience.
Don't expect Intel to lose this spot anytime soon
Although I do think Apple could handle going through a messy architecture transition on the Mac, I think the risk/reward for such a move is quite poor.
Intel already makes best-in-class low-power PC processors and I expect that the performance/features of its Core M product family will only get better out in time as future designs target a roughly 5-watt power envelope from the start (my understanding is that this requirement was added fairly late in the development cycle of the most recently launched Core M chips).
The only way I see Intel really losing a spot to an Apple-designed chip inside of future MacBooks is if Apple loses faith in Intel's PC product pipeline. But if Intel can continue to deliver on significantly improved chip designs with each generation, I just don't see such a transition away from Intel happening for the Mac.