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Apple To Spend $3.9 Billion On Reviving Project Aquarius?

Tim Cook, the acting CEO for Apple, confirmed yesterday that the company will be spending nearly four billion dollars over the next 24 months in what it calls long term component contracts - and we believe that Apple might be on the verge of bringing back Project Aquarius.

Back in 1986, Apple wanted to replace its ageing 68000 line with a four core RISC processor. That project was codenamed Aquarius and was personally approved by Apple's then CEO John Sculley, as well as Steve Jobs' replacement as head of Macintosh development Jean Louis Gassée (ed : We asked Mr Gassée about his thoughts on Aquarius and we will update this article if we receive an answer).

Fast forward to today and Apple looks very, very close to achieving the goal of designing its own processors, not only for mobiles, but also for the rest of its range of computers with an RISC-based, multi-GHz, multi-core architecture one from ARM.

There have been a few hints along the way; when Steve Jobs launched the iPhone 4 in July 2010, he said that the company would not go into any business where it did not own or control the primary technology because "if you don't the people who do own it will beat you".

Then there's the fact that in November 2010, Apple dropped the Xserve server family without any prior warning, saying that the company was just transitioning away from the massive Xserve servers to the Mac Mini.

There's also the acquisitions of PA Semi and Intrinsity over the past three years, together with a significant investment in ex-Videologic graphics powerhouse, Imagination Technologies.

Ultimately, Jobs' obsession with controlling the whole ecosystem means they won't stop at the software part of it, which is why we believe that sooner or later Apple will ditch Intel and possibly the x86 platform. Buying AMD would not give them enough leeway.

Another hint? What about the launch of the Mac App store a few weeks ago, essentially bringing one of the most seminal aspects of iOS to the Mac OS X.

ARM gives Apple the independence that it has sought for so long; obviously Apple is in ARM's DNA as one of the three founding members with VLSI technology and Acorn.

With the combined expertise of ImgTec, PA Semi and Intrinsity, Apple has the capacity to build a formidable hardware platform that spans from the iPod Touch all the way to an iMac; one GPGPU (General Purpose Graphics Processing Unit) to rule them all.

The Cupertino giant is sitting on a cash reserve of nearly $60 billion. It now has the money to finance a 25-year old dream that it could not afford to do back then. Tim Cook said in yesterday's revenue update: "From our point of view on design side, we design components where we believe we can innovate beyond the market. Most recent example, A4 chip. With the A4 chip, we didn't think we had to invest in a fab, so we focused on design."

So how will Apple spend the $3.9 billion? Investing in R&D and securing enough bleeding edge capacity from a chip manufacturing facilities for the next couple of years. For example, TSMC confirmed in April 2010 that it has plans to go below 14nm (Intel is currently at 28nm and the Apple A4 at 45nm) and plans to invest $4.8 billion to reach that aim. A little financial help could go a long, long way.

For more background information about Project Aquarius and its genesis, do check here (opens in new tab) and here (opens in new tab).

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.