Former senior Apple exec Jean-Louis Gassée, who once held the role of head of Macintosh development, says that it would be perfectly viable for the entire Mac range to be powered by ARM chips – even the Mac Pro. This reverses a view he held last year when he called the idea a ‘fantasy.’

He said that while one of the two problems he discussed last year remains a huge challenge for Apple, power is no longer an issue …

Jean-Louis Gassée last year said that having considered both sides of the argument, he’d concluded that the switch from Intel to ARM-based chips simply wasn’t practical.

After last week’s thought experiment on the Mac’s future, I realized that leaving the x86 processor family made little practical sense. A pleasing fantasy, perhaps, but too complicated in practice.

One of the reasons for that is he didn’t believe an ARM-based CPU could ever be powerful enough for the Mac Pro.

The Pro is a monstrously powered machine that costs tens of thousands of dollars and is designed for a (relatively) small audience of content creator professionals and other high-end technical users running fluidics dilutions and the demanding calculations involved in machine-learning applications. Will these users be satisfied with a lesser CPU in the name of Mac line cohesion?

In a blog post yesterday, however, he said he was wrong.

Ampere designs and sells high-powered ARM chips that compete with the Xeon processors used in cloud servers […] Ampere shows us that the ARM architecture can yield the class of chips a Mac Pro would need. And, as it happens, the chips are manufactured by TSMC, the same company that makes Apple’s Axx processors.

There does, however, remain one further problem: what he describes as the Mac ‘fork’: until the transition was complete, you’d have one set of Macs running on Intel chips, and another running on ARM-based chips, requiring two different versions of macOS.

If (or, more likely, when) the Mac switches to Axx chips, the change won’t be instantaneous. Some Macs will become powered by Apple’s home-grown CPU chips, others, like the Mac Pro, will remain on x86 processors. And thus we’ll have a fork of macOS.

And as soon as the first ARM-powered Macs are announced, anyone considering an Intel-powered one would know that they were essentially buying tech which won’t run the latest version of macOS – because the most modern version would be the one running on ARM chips. Is that upheaval worthwhile, he asks, at a time when the Mac line only accounts for 8% of Apple’s revenue?

Jean-Louis Gassée says he has ‘no idea’ what Apple’s decision will be.

My personal view is that he’s of course right about the ‘Mac fork’ problem, but as I’ve argued previously, history proves that Apple is willing to bite the bullet here.

Apple has done this not just once, but twice. First in the 1994 switch from the Motorola 68000 architecture of the original Macintosh range to PowerPC, and again in the 2006 move from PPC to Intel. It eased the transitions with a 68000 emulator and Rosetta.

That’s not to say that such transitions aren’t painful; they are. Horribly so for a while. Those of us who’ve lived through both moves can still recall some of the frustrations to this day.

But in both cases, we got over it, and the end result was worth it. The same will be true again.

Ming-Chi Kuo has suggested that Apple will release its first ARM-powered Mac at some point next year.

Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues

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Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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