Apple reportedly considers dropping Intel

Could Apple and Intel be heading for a divorce?

That’s the word from Bloomberg, which reported Tuesday that Apple is considering discontinuing using Intel’s chips in its Mac computers. Ironically, one of the reasons Bloomberg cites for the possible switch is the same reason that Apple switched to Intel in the first place: Apple’s demand for lower power chips.

When Apple switched from the PowerPC architecture to Intel in 2005, its overriding concern was the inability of the PowerPC coalition — IBM and Motorola — to design the kind of low-power chips that could power its notebooks. Apple feared that its notebooks would become increasingly uncompetitive with those running on Intel’s chips.

Thanks in part to the switch, Apple’s laptops again became competitive with its Windows rivals, and the company was able to create ever slimmer and lighter designs, including the MacBook Air. Apple’s computer sales have outpaced the broader industry basically since the switch.

But according to Bloomberg, the company has had longstanding concerns about Intel’s focus on delivering low-power chips. Apple’s slimmer, lighter designs depend on minimizing the space needed for batteries — and thus the amount of energy the batteries can store. And with the Retina Displays in Apple’s newest computers having a voracious appetite for power, there’s even less that Apple’s computers can devote to processing power.

Intel addressed Apple’s immediate concerns last year, but the company is continuing to explore its options, according to Bloomberg. While Intel dominates the PC market, it has struggled to produce chips that are competitive with those designed by ARM, the company whose technology underlies the chips used in the vast majority of smartphones and tablets.

Apple itself chose to use ARM-based chips in its smartphones and tablets after first considering using Intel processors. Apple now designs its own chips based on ARM’s technology. Such Apple-ARM chips could eventually power Apple’s Mac computers, Bloomberg says.

Should Apple move in that direction, it would be following in the footsteps of Microsoft, Google and Samsung. Microsoft recently released a version of its new Windows 8 software that’s compatible with ARM chips. It marked the first time that a version of Windows can be run on ARM-based machines. The company even went a step farther, releasing its own ARM-based tablet to which users can attach a keyboard and use almost like a laptop.

Similarly, Samsung last month released a ARM-based laptop computer running Google’s Chrome OS. It’s the first Chromebook to run on ARM; previous models ran on Intel chips.

While power concerns are a big driver of such moves — ARM-based machines tend to be more efficient and offer longer battery life than Intel ones — there are other explanations as well. With ARM-based chips, manufacturers like Apple can customize the designs to their particular needs. They can also have them made by a variety of chipmakers instead of just relying on one source. And using the same chips in phones, tablets and PCs could allow software and operating system makers to  design apps and programs that will run commonly on all three.

While Intel chips have tended to have an edge on ARM designs in pure processing power, that advantage has become less important with the rise of broadband Internet access and cloud-based processing. Thanks to such factors, much of the processing power that users formerly needed on their PC can now be offloaded to computers on the Internet.

Consumers have long used Web-based email services such as Hotmail. But they are increasingly turning to the Web for office applications and even processor intensive things like hard-core gaming, computer-assisted design and photo editing.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (256 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.