Apple to expand CPU design group beyond iPad A4

Posted:
in iPad edited January 2014
Apple is seeking to hire engineers to design a new CPU micro-architecture, expanding upon its acquisitions of two fabless chip design companies and the release of its new A4 application processor used in the iPad and iPhone 4.



The company has posted a job description for engineers to "design microarchitecture and [?] meet the functionality requirements, performance goals, and physical constraints such as power, area, and timing," indicating the work will focus on producing chips for mobile devices.



The position seeks candidates who will "work with performance modeling engineers to develop design options and select the most suitable one for design," suggesting that the company is aiming to create original works, not just overseeing the production of existing chip technology.



Apple's recent chip history



In the spring of 2008, Apple acquired PA Semi, which at the time was building very fast and efficient PowerPC processors known as PWRficient. That purchased sparked some speculation that the company might be seeking to return back to PowerPC CPUs in its Macs, just two years after its Intel transition.



Instead, Apple was motivated to design its own custom mobile processors for future iOS devices based on the ARM Architecture. The company had been evaluating Intel's Atom line, then known as Silverthorne, and found it to not be competitive with the ARM processors it had been using in the iPhone and the company's iPods before it.



Apple had originally worked with Acorn Computer in the late 80s to develop a mobile ARM processor suitable for use in the Newton Message Pad. Throughout the 90s, ARM greatly expanded, licensing its technology to other firms that created unique designs around it, including DEC's StrongARM used in the last Newton models. ARM is now by far the world's largest and most successful mobile processor design.



Core beats PowerPC, ARM beats Atom



Apple stopped using ARM processors when it discontinued the Newton in 1998, spending most of the 90s working to migrate its Mac line to PowerPC chips. However, ARM was the logical choice to use in the iPod in 2001, when Apple got back into producing mobile devices.



Intel had acquired DEC's StrongARM operation in 1997, and invested billions building it into Intel XScale line of ARM CPUs before selling it off at a huge loss to partner Marvell in 2006. Since then, Intel has focused on selling its new Atom-branded x86-compatible mobile chips, but has had a hard time matching the performance and efficiency of ARM.



Meanwhile, Apple had worked with PowerPC licensee Exponential in the mid 90s to develop a blazing fast version of the chip for use in its Mac line. That effort failed, leaving Apple tied to PowerPC partners Motorola and IBM, who were both focusing on embedded and server applications. By 2005, Apple decided to shift its Macs to use Intel's new Core CPUs.



Apple continued to use ARM processors in its iPods and AirPort base stations as well as the new iPhone in 2007. However, the company used a low power Intel chip to run the original Apple TV, and began evaluating Intel's Atom for its upcoming tablet and smartphones. However, Intel's inability to perform as well as ARM designs in mobile applications sent Apple back to the drawing board.



Apple builds its own drawing board



After acquiring PA Semi expressly to develop new chips for iPods and iPhones, Apple also began working with Intrinsity, a firm that had grown up from the ashes of the old Exponential a decade earlier. Intrinsity had been working with Samsung to greatly accelerate the performance of its ARM chip, known as Hummingbird.



Apple developed its own version of a high speed ARM processor with Intrinsity, and then acquired the company this April, releasing the new chip as the Apple-branded A4. The company uses the new A4 chip in the iPad (shown below), iPhone 4, the new iPod touch, and also built the revised Apple TV around it, erasing much hope that company would return to Intel for its low power chip designs.



Going forward, the company's efforts to recruit additional engineers to "lead the microarchitecture design of a CPU," strongly indicates that Apple will continue to design optimized ARM processors for future iOS devices itself using custom application processors.



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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 169
    Here we go. What better way to completely shut the user out of the computer than making the whole thing proprietary? Mac OS will only work on Apple's architecture (read: Apple computers), and Windows, et. al. won't ever be installable because they'll have no need to build Apple versions.



    It'd take forever, but it may happen.
  • Reply 2 of 169
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    Apple is seeking to hire engineers to design a new CPU micro-architecture, expanding upon its acquisitions of two fabless chip design companies and the release of its new A4 application processor used in the iPad and iPhone 4. ...



    Personally, I would expect a new chip from Apple sooner rather than later.



    The A4 is only a slightly optimised version of the stock item. Given the IP they purchased from PASemi, and the amount of time that's gone by since the acquisition of Intrinsity, it seems to me that the first seriously customised silicon might arrive with the very next iPhone.



    Apple seems to have grasped the obvious, which is that when it comes to the design of tablets there isn't a lot to differentiate one product from another in terms of exterior hardware like the screen, the ports or the shape. It's the software experience, and the performance of the chip that's going to be key.
  • Reply 3 of 169
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Tallest Skil View Post


    Here we go. What better way to completely shut the user out of the computer than making the whole thing proprietary? Mac OS will only work on Apple's architecture (read: Apple computers), and Windows, et. al. won't ever be installable because they'll have no need to build Apple versions.



    It'd take forever, but it may happen.



    Windows is a legacy OS, no need for Macs to support it forever.



    But, I very much doubt anything substantial will change in user access to Mac OS or iOS anytime in the foreseeable future. Both have many years ahead of them largely as they are today, even if on different CPU architectures.
  • Reply 4 of 169
    nasseraenasserae Posts: 3,157member
    Hopefully, dual core iPads and iPhones next/this year.



    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Tallest Skil View Post


    Here we go. What better way to completely shut the user out of the computer than making the whole thing proprietary? Mac OS will only work on Apple's architecture (read: Apple computers), and Windows, et. al. won't ever be installable because they'll have no need to build Apple versions.



    It'd take forever, but it may happen.



    You mean to tell me in the future Mac OS will only be installed on Macs?! So I won't be able to install Mac OS on a Dell, HP, et. al. like I can do now?! And where can I get a Windows version made for Mac now?!



    Oh wait
  • Reply 5 of 169
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by NasserAE View Post


    You mean to tell me in the future Mac OS will only be installed on Macs?! So I won't be able to install Mac OS on a Dell, HP, et. al. like I can do now?! And where can I get a Windows version made for Mac now?!



    Oh wait



    You're blindly missing the point.



    OS X may not be available for installation on non-Apple computers, but it's possible.

    Windows may not be made for installation on Macs, but it's possible.



    If Apple makes its own architecture, it will be physically impossible within the fundamental laws of the universe for it to work.
  • Reply 6 of 169
    sockrolidsockrolid Posts: 2,788member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Tallest Skil View Post


    ... If Apple makes its own architecture, it will be physically impossible within the fundamental laws of the universe for it to work.



    Not sure which universe you're in, but in this universe there were several Windows emulators for PowerPC Macs. Google "windows emulator powerpc mac" for some examples.



    It would be physically possible within the fundamental laws of the universe for a Windows emulator to work on even the most heavily customized multi-core Apple ARM chip. Trust me.
  • Reply 7 of 169
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Tallest Skil View Post




    If Apple makes its own architecture, it will be physically impossible within the fundamental laws of the universe for it to work.



    Get of your high horse. I've heard enough of this lately.
  • Reply 8 of 169
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Tallest Skil View Post


    You're blindly missing the point.



    OS X may not be available for installation on non-Apple computers, but it's possible.

    Windows may not be made for installation on Macs, but it's possible.



    If Apple makes its own architecture, it will be physically impossible within the fundamental laws of the universe for it to work.



    Um, ok so basically you're saying you won't be able to install Mac OS on unsupported devices. Who, besides a fraction of a percentage, gives a damn?



    Have you ever owned a Mac? Do you know what Bootcamp is? Get educated.
  • Reply 9 of 169
    nasseraenasserae Posts: 3,157member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Tallest Skil View Post


    You're blindly missing the point.



    OS X may not be available for installation on non-Apple computers, but it's possible.



    Mac OS is not intended to be used on non Apple computers. Even if Apple made it impossible to install Mac OS on non Apple computers this will have zero effect on Mac users. I thought we've learned something from Psystars 700 hackintosh sold.



    Quote:

    Windows may not be made for installation on Macs, but it's possible.



    MS Windows is made to run on any PC and Macs are PCs. Even when Macs used PowerPC you could have Windows installed through Virtual PC. Right now we have Parallels, VMWare, and Sandbox VM. This is not an issue.



    Quote:

    If Apple makes its own architecture, it will be physically impossible within the fundamental laws of the universe for it to work.



    Nothing is impossible. If you can install Android on the iPhone then you can do anything. Beside, this article is talking about iOS CPUs with some reference of Mac CPUs.
  • Reply 10 of 169
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by anonymouse View Post


    Windows is a legacy OS, no need for Macs to support it forever.



    But, I very much doubt anything substantial will change in user access to Mac OS or iOS anytime in the foreseeable future. Both have many years ahead of them largely as they are today, even if on different CPU architectures.



    Agreed, I was running Parallels with XP just for the few Real Estate websites (MLS's, SUPRA E-Key) which was a pain and made me very reluctant to work on those sites because they were windows/IE only! Clumsy and Clunky as usual with Windows products!



    Now all the sites are Safari/Mac compatible and the e-key is a fantastic app on the iPhone 4!



    For the first time I have not upgraded Parallels and it is just sitting in my Applications folder just in case. So long Windows and good riddance...



    Can't wait to get the second gen iPad for presentations and signing docs and an MBA for working out and about. Just hate working at home all alone! Much rather be in a restaurant working on my laptop!



    Best Regards and Happy New Year to everyone...really have enjoyed your posts/comments this last year! Chris



    BEST FREE IPHONE APP: DropBox for syncing all mobile devices to iMac & MobileMe



    BEST INEXPENSIVE IPHONE APP: NikeGPS for running...pretty cool!



    BEST EXPENSIVE IPHONE APP: TomTom GPS ($39) Just a wonderful App and worth every penny not to have to d**k around with yet another stand-alone device!



    BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Tetris...talk about not taking advantage of the whole screen an washed out colors! Certainly not using the Retina Display to its advantage...very disappointed!
  • Reply 11 of 169
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by christopher126 View Post


    Agreed, I was running Parallels with XP just for the few Real Estate websites (MLS's, SUPRA E-Key) which was a pain and made me very reluctant to work on those sites because they were windows/IE only!



    Now all the sites are Safari/Mac compatible and the e-key is a fantastic app on the iPhone 4!



    For the first time I have not upgraded Parallels and it is just sitting in my Applications folder just in case. So long Windows and good riddance...



    Can't wait to get the second gen iPad for presentations and signing docs and an MBA for working out and about. Just hate working at home all alone! Much rather be in a restaurant working on my laptop!



    Best Regards and Happy New Year to everyone...really have enjoyed your posts/comments this last year! Chris



    Happy New Year to you ETA is 3 H 30 Min here
  • Reply 12 of 169
    samabsamab Posts: 1,953member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Prof. Peabody View Post


    Personally, I would expect a new chip from Apple sooner rather than later.



    The A4 is only a slightly optimised version of the stock item. Given the IP they purchased from PASemi, and the amount of time that's gone by since the acquisition of Intrinsity, it seems to me that the first seriously customised silicon might arrive with the very next iPhone.



    Apple seems to have grasped the obvious, which is that when it comes to the design of tablets there isn't a lot to differentiate one product from another in terms of exterior hardware like the screen, the ports or the shape. It's the software experience, and the performance of the chip that's going to be key.



    There is no such thing as "slightly optimized" or "seriously customised".



    You either license the cortex core or you make your own armv7a compatible core.



    PA Semi was founded sometime in 2003 and launched their own Power ISA compatible core in Q4 2007 --- that's 4 years plus.



    AMCC bought the IP from IBM for several PowerPC embedded cores in 2004 (i.e. those "cores" actually belong to AMCC). In Q1 2006, AMCC hired Intrinsity to co-design their next gen powerpc "compatible" core. 4 years later, in 2010, Apple bought Intrinsity and AMCC is left with unfinished pieces.



    When IBM sold AMCC those embedded cores in 2004, AMCC didn't hire the IBM engineers. Qualcomm hired those IBM embedded engineers as a complete team in 2004. 4 years later, Qualcomm launched their own ARMv7A compatible core.



    It generally takes 4+ years to make a compatible core --- and that's just to ship the chips to the customers, not counting the development time to make a finished product out of those chips (i.e. add another year for actual phones to show up with those Snapdragon chips).
  • Reply 13 of 169
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Tallest Skil View Post




    If Apple makes its own architecture, it will be physically impossible within the fundamental laws of the universe for it to work.



    I get more use out of Fusion than I ever did of Bootcamp. Just saying that it might not be the doom and gloom you are trying to put out there.
  • Reply 14 of 169
    eriamjheriamjh Posts: 1,138member
    Apple is already working on the successor to the A4 (The A5? The B4?) They started the moment the iphone 4 went into production. Prototype silicon of its successor are likely already in prototypes of the iPad 2 and iPhone 5 on Apple's campus right now. Needing to hire someone for this team is not news. It's obvious.



    One doesn't need to be an insider to know these things. They are obvious requirements to Apple's design cycle. I don't need to know any details about them. The chip will be faster, more powerful, etc.



    Duh!
  • Reply 15 of 169
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Tallest Skil View Post


    You're blindly missing the point.



    OS X may not be available for installation on non-Apple computers, but it's possible.

    Windows may not be made for installation on Macs, but it's possible.



    If Apple makes its own architecture, it will be physically impossible within the fundamental laws of the universe for it to work.



    Have you managed to install Linux on an iPad, iPod Touch, iPhone 4?



    You mean Linux doesn't have support for the Apple A series of Processors? Go figure.
  • Reply 16 of 169
    sockrolidsockrolid Posts: 2,788member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Prof. Peabody View Post


    ... Given the IP they purchased from PASemi, and the amount of time that's gone by since the acquisition of Intrinsity, it seems to me that the first seriously customised silicon might arrive with the very next iPhone. ...



    Exactly what I'm thinking. $278 million for PA Semi plus $121 for Intrinsity is too much to spend on a slightly warmed-over single-CPU ARM design. The purchases prevent competitors from acquiring that IP and engineering talent, but that's only a small bonus.



    I think Apple's long-term goal is to create their own proprietary SoC for not just their iDevices but for Macs as well. This would help lower their hardware costs since they won't be paying off-the-shelf prices for one of the most expensive components in their products. And lower hardware costs will help Apple maintain their margins.



    But there are two more gigantic benefits. First, Apple could conceivably transition Mac OS back from Intel to their custom multi-core ARM. They have already transitioned Mac OS through several CPU changes: 68k to PowerPC, then PowerPC to Intel. Been there, done that, got the developers to come along too. And that could enormously benefit iDevices in the next decade. Eventually mobile device CPU power will exceed that of today's desktop computers, and Apple could prepare for that future by transitioning Mac OS to run on their ARM-based mobile CPUs.



    Second, and this is perhaps the most important benefit for Apple, using a custom ARM chip on all their computing products would free them from dependence on an outside chip designers. For decades, from the 6502 to Intel Core i7, Apple has been at the mercy of the Motorolas, IBMs, and Intels of the world. Each of which have different goals than Apple. Motorola and IBM were more concerned with the embedded versions of their PowerPC chips than efficient and speedy desktop and laptop computer versions. Intel is more concerned with optimizing Windows performance than anything else. (And the CISC design of their CPUs uses vast areas of silicon for the execution of obscure backward-compatible x86 instructions generated only by Microsoft's compilers.)



    None of those chip makers really wants to build a bespoke chip just for Apple. Intel, just after Apple completed the PowerPC-to-Intel transition, gave Apple their newest chips first. The original MacBook Air had an avant-garde chip that eventually was used in other laptops. But that was presumably because Apple paid them for that privilege, an unsustainable tactic, and the honeymoon ended.



    Apple could eliminate their co-dependence on other chip designers now that they have acquired PA Semi's and Intrinsity's intellectual property. And that will set them up for their next decade or two of innovation. No other tech company in the world will be as well prepared.
  • Reply 17 of 169
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Tallest Skil View Post


    You're blindly missing the point.



    I'm sure you see that flaw quite clearly and quite often... in other people.
  • Reply 18 of 169
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Povilas View Post


    Happy New Year to you ETA is 3 H 30 Min here



    Thanks Povilas!
  • Reply 19 of 169
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by samab View Post


    There is no such thing as "slightly optimized" or "seriously customised".



    You either license the cortex core or you make your own armv7a compatible core. ...



    I used some colloquial language, but the meaning was clear. There's no need to be so dismissive.



    The last I heard, Apple has a license to customise the Cortex A8 and A9 and so far, all they have done is do some very minor tweaks on the A8, put it in an SoC and called it the A4. My argument was only that given the IP they have, the acquisitions they have made, and the talent they acquired thereby, it makes sense that the A5 or whatever the next chip is called might be a more customised version of the actual core silicon.



    If what you are saying here is accurate:

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by samab View Post


    It generally takes 4+ years to make a compatible core --- and that's just to ship the chips to the customers, not counting the development time to make a finished product out of those chips...



    Then I'm off by a year or two and it might take until the A6 to see some real differences between Apple's silicon and the competition.
  • Reply 20 of 169
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,352member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by NasserAE View Post


    Hopefully, dual core iPads and iPhones next/this year.







    You mean to tell me in the future Mac OS will only be installed on Macs?! So I won't be able to install Mac OS on a Dell, HP, et. al. like I can do now?! And where can I get a Windows version made for Mac now?!



    Oh wait



    You saved me the trouble
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