Future iPhones to have Apple-designed processors

After seeing demos of Nvidia’s Tegra system-on-a-chip, one could easily assume that Steve Jobs and Jen-Hsun Huang are already talking about sticking the SoCs in next-generation iPhones. However, things may turn out quite differently.

The New York Times reports that Apple has decided to bring iPhone CPU development in-house. How do they know? Simple: Wei-han Lien, Apple’s newly minted Senior Manager of CPU Development, spilled the beans on his position in his LinkedIn profile. Lien says he’s been managing the “ARM CPU architecture team for IPhone (sic)” since April 2008. The revelation isn’t an entirely surprising one, since Apple purchased Lien’s previous employer—PA Semiconductor—back in April for around $300 million in cash. Lien’s profile does confirm Apple’s intention to get its hands dirty with iPhone CPU development, however.

Quoting industry sources and analysts, the Times wagers that Apple could “[build] support for functions such as the touch screen or scroll wheel into silicon and possibly [cutting] costs by reducing the number of processors needed.” Former AMD CTO Fred Weber also speculates that Apple could build a graphics engine into its CPUs. On the flip side, freeing itself from third-party ARM chip makers could lead Apple to delays—and it might not have the leisure of switching suppliers in such an event.

Comments closed
    • eitje
    • 11 years ago

    everyone’s talking about ARM here, but PA Semi did low-power PPC chips.

    i like the thought that Steve might announce, in another year or two, that the relationship with Intel is done and that PPC is the true future of Apple technology.

    He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

      • UberGerbil
      • 11 years ago

      Jobs: “PA Semi is going to do system-on-chips for iPhones and iPods”
      §[<http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/10/apple-in-parallel-turning-the-pc-world-upside-down/<]§ Of course, that's what he's saying /[

        • tfp
        • 11 years ago

        And I remember reading about dual core PA chip that was pretty much what the G5 should have been and it was a system on a chip. All they need to do is scale down the processing power, Mhz, voltage, and maybe pull a core and they are all set. Chance are they already have an embedded version doing just that.

          • Hattig
          • 11 years ago

          PA did actually release that CPU, it’s a pretty decent design. The US military use it, so Apple have committed to keeping the chip available.

          I think it was called the PA6T-1682M. 20W for a dual-core 64-bit 2GHz PowerPC chip with a large amount of the system also on the chip.

          Maybe Apple will fab a 45nm version of it to use in an Apple netbook. Oh, yeah, Apple doesn’t do cool things unless it would make them money.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 11 years ago

      I just don’t see the move to PPC here – you need to keep compatibility with the App store and apps that people purchase, I’d think. ARM emulation on something that slow would be painful, I’d think.

        • tfp
        • 11 years ago

        It would need to be a complete rebuild for those apps, if the apps at the apple store are well written it shouldn’t be an issue. Apps that high up on the OS level should not require much work to change processor types because they should not be accessing any of the Hardware directly. It would be up to Apple to support the old APIs or translate the ones that could be different because of the processor changes.

        Really it should be just a change at the board support level and some of the drivers. Even then some of the drivers might need little change but not a complete rewrite because they are not processor dependent. A Bluetooth driver could be a good example for this. It would all depend on if the Bluetooth hardware had to change because of the processor, if not then only small changes might be needed.

        The biggest impact would be in testing and just bringing the lower level drivers and OS up. Apps should be easy to port.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 11 years ago

          Well Apple has a pretty good history of making things easily portable – the number of OS X apps that only needed minor adjustments before being released for Intel is a pretty good indication of that. So you might be onto something, I just dont’ see it.

    • UberGerbil
    • 11 years ago

    When the PA Semi deal was announced most observers seemed to think this was what Apple was thinking. The timeframe is what is unclear. Apple could easily go through another couple of iPhone revisions before they have their own guts ready to go.

    Of course it would be amusing if they also had a plan to scale up to produce an ARM-based low-end Macbook (or perhaps a slate-style tablet, an oversized iPhone).

    • poulpy
    • 11 years ago

    Shocking move given Apple just bought PA Semiconductor! Err no wait..

    • zurich
    • 11 years ago

    I thought PA Semi was PowerPC?

      • adisor19
      • 11 years ago

      They were, but they were specializing in VERY LOW power PowerPC designs. They could apply that tech to the ARM architecture and come out with something even better.

      Adi

        • continuum
        • 11 years ago

        Hmm. I just wonder if Apple sees proper return on investment in this, given just how bloody expensive it is to design your own CPU cores?

          • adisor19
          • 11 years ago

          Right now, they have cash that’s just sitting there and doing nothing. Buying out PAsemi seemed to me like sound investment.. I think with time, they they manage to pull out a nice ARM based chip and embed it into a future iPhone/iTablet, the investment will more than pay off.

          Adi

          • Flying Fox
          • 11 years ago

          It has been mentioned that ARM is a licensed CPU design. So they don’t really have to do much to put it into a physical package with some additions.

            • tfp
            • 11 years ago

            I don’t see why they would bother too make an ARM CPU, just build for PPC. I wouldn’t be exactly shocked to find out Apple has a PPC version of the OS already. If they are smart, and they probably are, the iPhone OS is just a cut down version of the normal OSX + a hand full of embedded/phone items.

            From there it’s a BPS bring up, and some rewriting of low level drivers. The rest is just building for PPC and retesting.

            I remember seeing a few slides a while ago about PPC vs ARM vs x86 in regards to embedded apps and code size. PPC was the largest, ARM was like if you average the code size of PPC and x86, and x86 was the smallest. However because of the less complex instructions and less code translations (RICS to CISC like x86 does) for PPC vs ARM and ARM vs x86s there are power benefits. ARM was the middle ground in everything from what I remember. It was interesting, though probably 4 years ago now.

            Maybe the push is, storage of all kinds is getting cheaper and bigger all the time. Power enhancements are harder to do and in general can be applied to any architecture. Battery life in small-embedded devices is very important so it might be worth looking into making enhancements were ever possible. So if they can buy someone that designs/makes what they need why not, it should be an over all cost savings.

            The question is are the current iPhones single processor for OS/App layer and Radio code (not counting say DSP or Graphics chips) or are they dual one for each section. I have seen phones implemented in both manors.

            • ludi
            • 11 years ago

            Four years is an awfully long time in handsets, and ARM hasn’t exactly been standing still, while PPC has been doing..what, exactly?

            But more importantly, what would Apple gain from switching over to PPC? They already have a functional platform, they already have functional applications. And since PA Semi arrives with small-system design expertise that should be relatively portable, I’m not sure that their PPC background is anything other than an artifact. If you need an all-purpose hammer cheap, you buy a “pre-owned” all-purpose hammer, and who cares if it was previously used to reshingle a roof while you’re more about hanging art?

            • tfp
            • 11 years ago

            Embedded PPC has not been standing still, desktop PPC has/is dead. Just because tech sites don’t report on embedded processors unless Intel or Amd make an x86 version doesn’t mean work isn’t being done.

            Also it takes time to design a processor, even if they have experience in another architecture. Like you said 2/3/4 years is a long time. So to me that means they have PPC embedded processor in the works Apple likes and Apple has PPC code version of software or they are already designing an ARM processor and it’s pretty close to tapping out.

            I can’t see Apple buying them for something they might make in the future.

            • UberGerbil
            • 11 years ago

            No, but I can see Apple hiring them for their expertise in low-power CPUs in general, not their PPC expertise in particular. It’s not clear that it would be any quicker to get the PA Semi guys to adapt a PPC design for the iPhone (and adapt the iPhone software to PPC, not to mention convincing the all the third party app devs this is a good thing and then supporting them during the transition) than it would be to put the PA Semi guys to work on an ARM-based design. You’re still talking a couple of generations of more “off the shelf” ARM-based iPhones before either one happens.

            One thing I could see Apple doing if they do transition CPUs: you get taken to totally different App stores depending on the architecture of the phone you’re running. The 3rd party guys have to support both architecture, but the user doesn’t see the bifurcation (unless/until they upgrade phones and discover some of their old favorite apps aren’t available on their new phone).

            But if I had to bet, I’d put money on the PA Semi guys doing something ARM-derived.

    • danazar
    • 11 years ago

    They’d better stick to something ARM-compatible so they can go back to someone else’s chips if this falls through.

    Then again, I really do think they’ll switch to x86 in 3-5 years when the power envelope comes down enough to allow them to do so.

      • just brew it!
      • 11 years ago

      But power consumption of RISC-based embedded CPUs will continue to shrink as well. So by the time x86 is down where ARM is today, ARM will be even lower. Given the choice between switching to x86, or going with a newer, lower power RISC chip which allows them to shave another few grams off of battery weight and/or extend battery life, most device makers will opt to stay with RISC.

      The thing you have to remember is, the primary reason x86 is the dominant architecture in the desktop and server world today is the entrenched ecosystem of desktop and server software. You don’t have that in the mobile device space, so there’s very little reason to adopt x86 over the alternatives.

      I don’t expect x86 to become a major force in the mobile device space any time soon (if ever).

        • UberGerbil
        • 11 years ago

        I agree.

        However, there is one scenario where Intel could extend x86 to mobile devices. Imagine a future where people walk into work and drop their cell phone into a docking station that is connected to power, gigE, a keyboard+mouse, and desktop display. The CPU+GPU in the cellphone cranks itself up (since it isn’t running on batteries anymore) and has plenty of horsepower to run office apps at desktop resolutions. You no longer have to synch your desktop with your cellphone because your desktop /[

    • bthylafh
    • 11 years ago

    Be interesting to see if Apple will make it possible to run Rockbox, etc. on the new design. They might not release CPU architecture documentation at all.

    • murtle
    • 11 years ago

    I accept to punishment for double post but don’t wanna waste two awesome reply in one place 😛

    • BoBzeBuilder
    • 11 years ago

    Apple’s in bed with Intel. Why not put a low power Atom chip in there?

      • murtle
      • 11 years ago

      Because they are starting to wake up.

      • murtle
      • 11 years ago

      Because they “think different”.

      • ssidbroadcast
      • 11 years ago

      That’s a good question. Maybe for the possible reasons specified by Fred Weber. Remember that currently existing Atoms are tied to the relatively large and power-hungry 945 chipset.

      That said, I *highly* doubt apple will be able to design and self-fabricate a cpu+gpu combo on one die so soon. This is something AMD’s been working on for a while now, and they’re no slouches at CPU design.

        • clone
        • 11 years ago

        by the time Apple gets the cpu designed 32nm die process tech will likely be on it’s way out and cheaper……. if this is the case producing a power saving cpu based on an in order design will be comparatively easy…… with the differences in power consumption negligible.

        we are in a day and age when tech has risen to demand with the future differences in many instances being negligible.

          • UberGerbil
          • 11 years ago

          Even at 32nm it’s not going to be “easy” to get an x86 design, even an in-order one like Atom, down into phone chip territory. The difference in power consumption is definitely not going to be “negligible.” And then you have to deal with the chipset (or do an SoC design).

        • just brew it!
        • 11 years ago

        They’re very different products. AMD = general purpose x86 CPU+GPU, optimized for performance. Apple = specialized SOC (system-on-a-chip), optimized for low power consumption. I don’t see how you can really extrapolate from one to the other.

        And who said anything about them fabbing them in-house? PA Semi was fabless; I assume they will continue to use outside foundries.

          • ssidbroadcast
          • 11 years ago

          dang, I just got 0wned.

            • UberGerbil
            • 11 years ago

            Yes, and without even a mention of Tegra, which is an ARM-based SoC with graphics that /[

        • smilingcrow
        • 11 years ago

        “Remember that currently existing Atoms are tied to the relatively large and power-hungry 945 chipset.”

        Not for the embedded and hand-held markets which already have a fairly low power chipset, at least by desktop standards.

          • Hattig
          • 11 years ago

          “By desktop standards” indeed.

          I honestly don’t think Apple got PA Semi to just create yet-another-ARM-SoC, but I’m sure it is one of their aims. ARM is very nice and low power, and the infrastructure is as well. Intel have to aim to get the same kind of low-power infrastructure onto their lowish-power CPU, and then to use their process advantage to offset the higher CPU power consumption.

      • ludi
      • 11 years ago

      Wrong market. ARM is not itself a processor, it’s a licenseable RISC architecture. Buy the appropriate license and it can be incorporated into any design you like. ARM has pretty much mastered the art of good performance at very low power, which is why a solid majority of other phone products already use it.

      If you buy an Atom processor, you get a 2.5W TDP in-order x86 processor, and then you have to have core logic, display output, and other necessary functions supported in silicon elsewhere. For the current generation of Atom hardware, that’s a Fat Fail if you’re building a handset device.

        • Flying Fox
        • 11 years ago

        Yup, the performance per watt is even more impressive with chips based on ARM architecture. Atom is not there yet. Intel’s roadmap calls for something like that in a generation or two in the future.

        • UberGerbil
        • 11 years ago

        Yeah, people seem to have no grasp of how low power a processor has to be to succeed in a phone, even a smart phone. You’re talking milliwatts — at least an order of magnitude lower power than what Atom offers (even before you get to the chipset issues). Intel thinks they’re two to three years away from getting an x86 processor into that space, and that’s probably optimistic (especially considering the fab issues looming as they go down past 32nm).

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This