Is Apple moving away from x86 architecture?

Apple’s formidable mobile lineup is powered by ARM-based processors. But could the company be preparing to expand its use of the low-power chips in other devices?

For example, the current iteration of Apple TV is equipped with an Intel x86-based chip that runs a “light” version of Mac OS X and its Front Row software.

However, analyst Shaw Wu of Kaufman Bros believes Apple’s redesigned set-top box will be powered by an ARM processor running iOS – the same operating system found on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.

“If the iPhone 4 and iPad are any indication, Apple is likely to employ its own custom A4 processor, or some variation of it,” explained AppleInsider’s Slash Lane.

“[Remember], Apple began designing its own chips through the purchases of Intrinsity and PA Semi.”

Of course, the possible use of an ARM processor in Apple’s set-top box is hardly proof that the company is preparing to ditch x86 architecture.

Still, it is worth noting that early versions of the Mac OS were compatible only with Motorola 68000-based Macintoshes.

Later iterations of the OS were adapted to work with Power PC hardware based on RISC architecture, which was created by a 1991 Apple–IBM–Motorola alliance, known as AIM.  

And early versions of Mac OS X were compatible with both PowerPC and Intel processors, up to and including version 10.5 (Leopard). However, version 10.6 (Snow Leopard) supports only Intel-based processors.

Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Apple’s romance with RISC architecture – which powers ARM’s processors – has never really disappeared.

So, while ARM architecture is unlikely to make a comeback in Apple’s desktop or laptop lineup (at least, in the short-term), it will undoubtedly continue to be leveraged in a wide range of current and future devices.