Apple may decide to institute its third architecture switch in a decade, returning to its RISC roots by ditching Intel’s x86 for ARM’s architecture - ironically, a company that it co-founded.
Rumours about Apple dumping Intel first surfaced two years ago, but when Bloomberg reported earlier this week that the company is exploring ways to replace Intel processors with a more powerful version of the Ax series that powers the iPhone and the iPad, it confirmed our belief that Intel could very well be on its way out.
Bloomberg’s claims come just over a week after ARM announced a new 64-bit processor range with the Cortex-A53 and the Cortex-A57. Earlier this autumn, Apple launched the iPhone 5, which some experts claim contains a modified version of the Cortex-A15, a core which was unveiled back in September 2010.
Given that there tends to be a 24 month lead time between the unveiling of a new product and its integration in a product, Apple could be preparing to replace Intel with ARM in its mainstream devices as early as October 2014, possibly with a multi-core (8 or 16) Cortex A57 processor and a PowerVR Series 6 “Rogue” graphics subsystem.
Apple began designing chips over three years ago after acquiring two semiconductor companies, PA Semi and Intrinsity, to launch the Apple A4 system-on-chip which powers the iPhone 4. Estimates put Apple's total investments in chip technology at nearly $500 million (£313 million).
Unlike Intel, Apple doesn’t have a foundry of its own and instead gives the blueprint of its chips to a third party, such Samsung Semiconductors or TSMC, to produce millions of units.
That allows Apple to avoid expensive capital investment, given that chip factories cost billions of pounds and take a few years to build. Relying on third party manufacturers also allows Apple to stay clear of distractions and gives the company the ability to tweak and mould the chips according to its own needs, potentially using ARM CPU and PowerVR GPU technologies as base ingredients.
This is in line with Apple’s laser-focused ambitions to have as much control over key technologies as possible (case-in-point: it banned Adobe’s Flash and QuickTime is still its only video-playing medium). And as it stands, CPU and GPU technologies on its non-mobile platforms are too far from its zone of influence. Instead, Apple has to rely on Intel for CPUs and on ATI and Nvidia for GPUs. This means that it has to share technological innovations with rivals and cannot get any exclusivity that will allow it to stay ahead of the competition.
Not surprisingly, those two components are among the more expensive elements in a computer, carrying a fat profit - an Intel Core i7 CPU starting price stands at $294 (£184), for instance. Accordingly, bringing their design in-house might significantly improve Apple's already-high profit margins.
One more thing. In January 2011, we suggested that Apple might bring back Project Aquarius - a quasi-mythical venture from 1986 which saw Apple’s engineers dreaming of a four-core RISC processor to replace the Motorola 68000 series. Apple, more than ever before, has the financial clout to make that dream become reality.
And Apple jumping to ARM may give ideas to another tech giant, Microsoft, which joined the ARM family on non-mobile devices with Windows RT. After all, Microsoft has an architectural license for ARM which allows it to design its own chip should it so please.
There is an ongoing heated debate regarding the performance delta between ARM and Intel platforms, but recent ARM announcements suggest that the company is beefing up its processor portfolio with an extensive physical and system IP ecosystem supporting it.
The biggest argument for a single architecture, though, has to be the fact that it would allow developers to produce binary-compatible packages for use across a single, seamless ecosystem.
After all, if you can watch a movie (or play a game) on your desktop, pause it on your tablet, watch it again on your laptop, pause it again on your smartphone and restart it on your gaming console, then why shouldn’t that be the case for applications?