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What About An A6 Mac?

With Lion signalling an apparent merger of at least some iOS features on the Mac, there’s more and more speculation as to Apple’s end game. Do they ultimately intend to combine the two operating systems, thus offering a seamless experience among iPhones, iPads, and Macs? If that happens, would Apple, in turn, ditch Intel processors and replace them with Apple’s own processors based on ARM technology.

I suppose this seems sensible at first blush. After all, Apple’s mobile gadgets are incredibly fast, with near-instant boot and app launch times. So why not put the very same chips on, say, a MacBook Air?

Now when it comes to Apple, you certainly can’t predict what they plan to do six months from now, let alone two or three years. So nothing ought to be off the table, but some of this speculation doesn’t quite pass the logic test.

First and foremost, the reason Apple’s mobile processors seem so fast is that they aren’t being asked to do near the amount of tasks they’d have to perform on a traditional personal computer. The iOS and all those apps are optimized to operate with extreme efficiency on a computing device that runs at roughly the same speed as a Mac of, say, eight years ago. While it’s a sure thing Apple will be speeding up their A-series chips in the years to come, expecting them to match, or closely match, Intel’s processors seems a stretch. That would require Intel virtually standing still while the mobile processors close the gap.

Besides, why would Apple want to cripple Macs in that fashion? One of the big selling points of a Mac these days is virtually instant response for most any task you want to perform, except for heavy-duty rendering tasks that require the fastest multicore processors, and the speediest drives available. Certainly the growth of solid state drives on Macs would make up some of the performance gap, but not for processor intensive work. Besides, why would Apple force developers to undergo a new processor transformation without an upside?

What the pundits who talk of a Mac with an A6 or A7 processor (assuming that model designation will continue) seem to forget is that, while Apple has managed to make their operating system work on different processors with great efficiency and reliability, what about the software? An app that supports Intel would have to be recompiled to run on the ARM-family processors that Apple uses as the basis for their home-brewed chip designs. There are still apps out there that won’t even run on Intel processors, and that transition occurred in 2006. Apple has discontinued the Rosetta emulation app that allows you to run PowerPC software for Lion, and that’s one reason some can’t upgrade unless they can find replacement apps, or the apps they’re using are upgraded.

Sure, Apple can devise a new emulation layer to deal with such issues for the next processor migration, but, again, why? Sure, if Intel’s processor roadmap goes off the cliff in the next few years, Apple would seek alternatives. But they could consider AMD, who makes chips that are compatible with Intel’s in terms of running the very same operating systems. Yes, Apple’s motives may at times be inscrutable to outsiders, but what they do ultimately tends to make a lot of sense when you begin to see the goal post.

Granted Apple might want to do more to unify OS X and the iOS in the years to come, largely to make it easier for customers to move from one to the other. It’s also quite possible more and more Mac and Windows users will decide that the iPad suits them just fine and abandon the traditional personal computer. In fact, the main justifications for Apple’s alleged OS meld and ditching Intel processors is to accommodate the reality that fewer and fewer people will need a real PC. Traditional computers will be confined to so-called “prosumers” and business customers, and those numbers will probably decline in time.

But so long as Apple can make healthy profits selling several million Macs every quarter, why should they kill that market? Sure, maybe the future A6 and A7 will have huge advantages in power utilization, but it’s also clear Intel isn’t going to stop making their chips more and more power efficient. I suppose a lot of possibilities are on the table, but that doesn’t mean you can predict Apple is going to go into any particular direction. This is one company that has a habit of confounding the experts time and time again.

So it all boils down to this: If Apple can see a strategic reason to merge operating systems and to switch processors, it will happen some day. But Apple isn’t apt to want to force developers to switch gears all over again in the very near future.

Now when Lion’s successor arrives, perhaps two years from now, maybe things will change. iPad sales and how the Mac is doing at the time may be determining factors. But, as always with Apple, prepare to be surprised and maybe amazed.