Why Has Apple Invested In Imagination’s PowerVR?

Why Has Apple Invested In Imagination’s PowerVR?

Apple bought a 3.6 percent share in UK-based company Imagination to secure the future of the graphics portion of its forthcoming mobile products. Apple’s investment pushed the company market capitalisation to £116.43 million and just like another great British tech company, ARM, one can expect Imagination’s valuation to rise again.

ARM and Imagination are the equivalent of Intel and Nvidia in the mobile world. But rather than building parts, ARM and Imagination both license designs to other companies which would then adapt the chips to their specific needs. And with billions of mobile devices out there, the market is huge.

Apple’s iPhone currently uses the Samsung S5L8900 which combines an ARM 1176 processor and a PowerVR MBX 3D graphics coprocessor. The purchase of PA Semi will reduce Apple’s dependence on Samsung’s ARM technology and will give it more control over the development of the chip architecture and reduce the risk of product delays. 

Apple did the same with Imagination and Power VR, whose products it is already using in the iPhone and the iPod Touch. Most importantly, one can envisage that Apple will be licensing Imagination technology to integrate it with its own ARM architecture for future iPhone versions (probably from version 4 onwards).

ARM acquired Falanx, a rival to Power VR, in 2006 and its Mali product line could easily give the MBX family a run for its money. So rather than putting all its eggs in the same basket, Apple might have decided to spread its risks.

And it seems likely that, by controlling every step of the design process, Apple will ensure that all the core components for its future products are free from any issues associated with outsourcing chip design. The appointment of Mark Papermaster from IBM and the purchase of PA Semi means that Apple could well in the future, return to its roots, reviving project “Aquarius”, designing its own hardware and software. It has the capital, the expertise and the time.

Interestingly enough, on the 24th November 2008, Imagination Technologies announced that it signed a license agreement with a new partner, an unknown major international consumer electronics company, for a high-performance forthcoming member of Imagination’s POWERVR SGX graphics processor family. Imagination said that it expects the agreement to extend the reach of its PowerVR technology into another “high volume” consumer device segment. The CE company in this case was Apple. 

Another critical piece of information; the first generation of handsets with 3D acceleration were on par with the Nintendo DS console, supporting OpenGL ES 1.0 and 1.1. The next generation Power VR and Mali architecture will support OpenGL ES 2.0 which according to an interview of Ex-ARM Mali Product Manager Ed Plowman in March 2007, will allow consumer devices to move “into the realms of next gen console image synthesis” (ed: at least PS2 quality).

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