Analysis, Technology

Apple’s Own Silicon: What It Could Mean for the Technology Sector and Apple

Yesterday, as anticipated, Apple released their tablet product, the Apple iPad, with much fanfare and criticism. Amidst the technologies in the iPad, with the old (lithium-polymer battery technology, multi-touch) and new (iPad OS) was an important one: the Apple A4 chip.

In March 2009, about a year ago, Apple acquired Power Architecture fabless semiconductor chip company P.A. Semi. P.A. Semi aimed to build low-power, efficient, and fairly powerful chips to use in various applications. Then-CEO Dan Dopperpuhl noted that P.A. Semi aimed to develop chips that consumed ten times less power than conventional chips.

Now with their own in-house team to develop chips for them, Apple released the A4 chip, an ARM-based system-on-a-chip based on ARM Cortex A9 with an ARM Mali 5-series GPU. Rivaling other ARM-based SOAC platforms, like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon or Nvidia Tegra 2, it focuses, quite clearly, on mobile performance with very low power usage. P.A. Semi’s last product was the PWRficient chip, which was a dual-core Power Architecture-based chip that ran at 2GHz and consumed 5 watts (25 watts at peak) of energy.

What does the presence of an Apple-designed chip forewarn about the future of Apple products? There are a number of considerations with Apple designing their own chips. Here are some of them.

Approaching compete control of the computing experience

John Gruber of Daring Fireball noted something that Apple COO Tim Cook said in June:

“We believe in the simple, not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.”

Indeed, through developing so much of their products in-house, like the battery, processor, and other key features, they’re finding ways to control the user experience of their products. And it’s working: their revolutionary lithium-polymer batteries coupled with the Apple A4 processor create not only a pretty dazzling graphics experience, but a long-lasting one. The ten-hour high load battery life and the one month standby (!) are indicative of Apple’s ability to take control of the experience—not to mention the presence of what could be an incredible amount of DRM and security built into the processor, moving from software security to hardware security.

Radical innovation has never been a trait that Apple has neglected to execute brilliantly on. But now, Apple is doing so by taking control of the entire computing experience, now even down to the silicon.

Radical differentiation from competition

Few technology companies try to specialize in the finer points in computing, namely the processor. Including Apple, until lately. The iPhone 3GS is powered by the ARM Cortex A8 ARM processor, with PowerVR SGX graphics. We haven’t really seen much that has been developed without ARM-manufactured chips, Intel, Qualcomm, or Nvidia.

Has the new chip scared the chip manufacturers? You bet, and it’s also had an effect on the top manufacturers. While Microsoft and Nintendo try to nonchalantly shrug off the iPad as ‘humorous’ and ‘unimpressive’, it is clear that Apple has something they don’t have: a few steps ahead in product technology. All of the mobile phone manufacturers are behind, and while they’re struggling to catch up in technology, Apple will be moving forward.

Limitless expansion of Apple products

With the Apple A4 processor, Apple set an example: with their in-house semiconductor team from P.A. Semi, they could not only design their own chip, but they could design a damn good one. This would allow for the limitless expansion of Apple products. While competitors are constrained by limitations like processor power and processor energy draw, Apple can get around these limitations. They’ve bought a company that allowed them to design an excellent, efficient processor. There are few things more difficult to design than the very processing center of a technology device.

Whenever the next iPhone comes out, we’ll see something like a 700MHz Apple-designed chip in it with a lithium-polymer battery, and when we find out how fast it is and the battery life, Apple competitors will be quite astounded. Repeat by applying knowledge gained from the A4 to a x86 architecture, with the MacBook, iMac, Xserve, and other future Apple products, and it’s clear that Apple could perhaps become the market leader in an incredibly large gamut of technology.

It’s more than a processor. It’s an indicator of how important Apple might be in the future to technology and to our lives.

  • I'm glad you have also picked up on the importance of the A4. I agree that controlling the components can breed innovation and a better user experience. Clearly the other chip providers couldn't do what Apple wanted.

    I can't wait to see what this new technology bears in the future.

  • JH

    Uh, PA Semi made low-power PowerPC variants, not ARM chips. That's why their last chip before being acquired was PWRficient. PWR = PowerPC. Get it?

    Please get your basic facts right.

  • I am sorry. You are correct. I had my facts wrong for P.A. Semi. I assumed (we all know what happens when you assume) their previous work was in ARM, since the IP was to be used in Apple work (which was ARM), but—as you said—it was instead in the Power Architecture.

    Please accept my apologies and my promise to be more careful in my future research.

  • Pssst… You mention the next iPhone chip may run at 700Mhz, the current 3GS chip is capable of 833 but is under clocked to 600Mhz for power reasons. This may change to full speed in future updates via a technique called scaling (which may be used now just is not publicized).

    Good summary of the topic… 🙂

  • Definitely, I was alluding to the use of improved batteries, as it seems they improve battery life and speed every release.

    Of course, all of that is speculatory and has absolutely no basis in fact. It's a prediction of what could come.


  • Karthikeyan A K

    Apple could become unbeatable very soon

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