One of the biggest advances in the iPhone 5S has no apparent reason to be there. I'm talking about the 64-bit Apple A7 processor, which is destined to be utterly underused in the pocket-sized smartphone. But the A7 is part of a larger plan for Apple, one that will become more apparent in next month's iPad launch – and possibly in next year's Macs.
Let's talk about October's iPads
I'm almost 100 per cent sure that we'll see new iPads late next month, just like we did last year. No, I'm no Jim Dalrymple; I don't have secret sources within Apple. But the company needs to update its iPad line for Christmas, it wants to have a few weeks' worth of breathing room after the iPhone launch, and it needs to have the products in stores by mid-November.
The main reason to use a 64-bit processor is to address more than 4GB of memory, which just isn't an issue on today's iPhones and iPads; even the new iPads are only likely to have 2GB or 3GB of RAM. While I'm sure we'll eventually see a 4GB iPad, that won't be until 2014 or 2015.
The A7's other major boost, though, is in graphics power. Looking at graphics benchmarks, the A7 will help the iPhone and iPad to get closer to the holy grail of 60 frames per second when performing truly graphics-intensive tasks.
As the chip is proving small and cool enough to work in a phone, we should also expect to see it powering a retina iPad mini. The iPhone 5's A6 chip doesn't have sufficient graphics oomph to handle a retina iPad screen. The current iPad's A6X didn't appear in a mini, implying that it's not appropriate for smaller form factor devices. The A7 will standardise the iOS line on one chip, enabling a much more competitive small tablet and making it easier for developers to write high-end apps that assume similar levels of performance on different devices.
Tim Cook's "free iWork" move is also pretty iPad-centric. The Microsoft Surface may have bombed, but the idea that tablets are replacing the entire low end of the laptop market hasn't. iPads aren't media consumption tablets – I've seen enough people doing real work on them to know that they're really just Apple's sub-£800 laptop play. Including office productivity software on the tablets underscores that.
Okay, so why 64-bit?
So the iPhone doesn't need a 64-bit processor yet. The iPad won't need a 64-bit processor. And no, I doubt we're going to see Macs switching to ARM processors very soon. So why is the A7 64-bit? Speaking to a bunch of very smart analysts at an ARM event earlier this week, I came to the conclusion that it's about developer tools and future Mac/iOS compatibility.
Most Macs, like most Windows machines, are 64-bit systems now. It's not considered unusual to have more than 4GB of RAM on your desktop PC. Putting the iPhone and iPad on a 64-bit footing will get iOS developers writing 64-bit-compatible apps, which will build a library of 64-bit apps for future iPads, but also for Macs.
Apple has slowly been bringing iOS-like features to Mac OS for years now: Think of Launchpad and Gatekeeper. The ultimate prize, of course, would be to bring the million-plus iOS apps to Macs. Apple could do that with an ARM-compatible virtual machine on Mac hardware, but it would want the VM, the OS and the associated apps to play nicely in the much larger memory space available on Macs. That means moving the whole system over to 64-bit.
This transition may not happen immediately, though, because of the user interface issues involved. iOS applications are extremely touch-centric, and Apple hates the ergonomics of today's touchscreen laptops. Reaching over to a screen, as you do on Windows 8, is an idea that doesn't impress Jonathan Ive. How Apple plans to solve this conundrum is one of the company's greatest challenges. Will it be something like an enhanced trackpad? I'm at a loss.
By unifying iOS and Mac OS with Xcode developer tools in a 64-bit space, Apple could once again leap ahead of Microsoft and Google. Microsoft hasn't yet been able to leverage its desktop strengths to achieve success as a mobile OS – and Google's the other way around. The A7 is a key step in that evolution.
For more on the 64-bit iPhone discussion, see our article entitled The iPhone 5S and A7 chip: 64-bit is mere marketing bluster, not a performance boost.
And for yet more on the new iPhones, have a gander at our hands-on with the iPhone 5S and the iPhone 5C. You might also want to check out our Apple iPhone 5S versus iPhone 5C spec comparison, and our look at the best features of Apple’s new iPhone 5S.