Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A4 (ain't just paper anymore): Apple's New Chip

In case you missed it, with the advent of the iPad, Apple Inc. has entered the CPU business. While many pundits are still scratching their heads and wondering, "Who needs a giant iPod Touch?" Chris O'Brian notes:

"For the first time, Apple has built it’s own chip for a product. For years, the company has worked with others, first Motorola and then IBM, to build its processors. But for the iPad, the company debuted its A4 chip. The chip came via its acquistion of P.A. Semi in 2008. Building its own chip reportedly was one of the key reasons Apple was able to bring the cost of the iPad down. But early reviewers have also noted the iPad’s speed at rendering Web pages. The A4 potentially puts Apple in a position to build more of its own chips, and it also sets up a new rivalry against Intel for the mobile computing business."

Apple has built chips before; he means home-grown microprocessor.

The historical set up for this new development goes something like this:
  • Until 1994, the entire Macintosh line was all Moto 68K based
  • Moto Corp killed their (faster) 88K RISC processor line
  • The PPC (RISC ) processor was a joint venture between Moto, IBM and Apple
  • Moto eventually bailed on general purpose microprocessor design and spun off Freescale
  • Freescale faltered trying to get to 45 nm feature size (state of the art VLSI)
  • Freescale PPC ran too hot in the iMac G5 and the "Cheese Grater"
  • IBM's newer Power processors ran too hot for laptops and mobiles
  • IBM doesn't do low-end anymore (sold to Lenovo), so they didn't care
  • Intel did care about getting into the mobile market and below 45 nm with Penryn
  • Intel did care about ameliorating thermodynamic problems with multicores
  • Apple dropped the PPC and went with Intel multicores for its Mac line of computers
  • Because of their much smaller size, the iPod (2001) and iPhone (2007) employed the simpler ARM microprocessor
  • Last year, Apple hired Mark Papermaster, a key PPC architect (IBM has sued over no-compete)
  • A4 is not really a microprocessor, in the ususal sense
  • A4 = ARM microprocessor + ARM GPU (i.e., a system-on-a-chip)
  • Hybridizing in this way (a SOC), Apple side-steps the need for custom VLSI fabrication
That's how the iPad can render web pages so fast—a feature noted by most pundits. Remember, Apple is a hardware company at core, even though they do blur the boundaries from time to time with excellent software innovations. They've also managed to monetize software dev and app dsn for developers—something Apple never got right for the Mac Classic line. As I've oft-stated elsewhere, Steve Jobs was the first to realize that a mobile device, like the iPhone, is not just a phone. It is the commodity computer of the future and he has aggressively begun converting the future into now. Update Mon, Feb 8, 2010:
"The iPad is a new paradigm of human-computer interaction. The desktop is gone. The folders are gone. The documents live inside the app. The device transforms itself in the object it becomes. It is a non-object. It is what you want it to be. One touch on an icon, it is a calculator. No folders, no files, just numbers as if you were holding a calculator. One touch and it is a notepad. One touch and it is a picture frame. It is the future of computing. The iPad is the replacement of the home desktop computer."Fabrizio Capobianco, Funambol, Inc.

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