Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The Mysterious Apple A4 Chip - Where's MSFT's and GOOG's Chip?

Posted by Tom Foremski - January 29, 2010

The most unique and mysterious feature of the Apple iPad, is the A4, an Apple chip developed by the 150 plus strong engineering team it acquired when it bought PA Semi for $278m nearly two years ago.

The engineering team is top notch. CNET wrote:

While at Digital Equipment Corp., [CEO Dan] Dobberpuhl oversaw the development of the Alpha chip for servers and the StrongARM processor for handhelds...

Jim Keller, P.A. Semi's vice president of engineering, and Pete Bannon, vice president of architecture, worked on the Alpha as well. Keller then went to AMD and helped define the architecture for what became the Opteron...

EETimes says that Mr Dobberpuhl also led MIPS teams. [MIPS is another low-power high performance processor.] And it also has AMD Opteron chip designers too.

When Apple acquired PA Semi, it had developed a multi-core POWER architecture chip. POWER is an IBM processor architecture derived from a partnership with Motorola. It's what Apple used before jumping to Intel (and from Motorola 68000 microprocessor before that).

With PA Semi, Apple managed to acquire a hugely talented engineering team with bags of experience with every major microprocessor design.

Two years later, Apple has most probably invested about a $100 million a year in the PA Semi team. It has spent more than $500 million to develop the A4 chip.

That's a huge investment in a chip.

Apple is essentially saying that there is nothing like it on the market. That it could not have made the A4 chip using current designs. That's a big statement.

What's inside the A4?

We don't know for sure. We know it is an ARM based processor, running at 1 GHz. ARM gives it compatibility with iPhone apps, which are ARM based. But what else is in the chip?

It has graphics and video decoders, so it can display high quality graphics and HD video, quickly and easily, and at low power. But you can get similar capabilities from the large library of designs available off-the-shelf for ARM processors.

Why would Apple need 150 top chip engineers if that was all it wanted?

An unhackable system...

We don't yet know what else is in the A4 chip. My guess is that there is a bunch of hardcore digital rights management (DRM) hardware on the chip. It's essentially a large security dongle that happens to have its own processing and video/graphics capabilities.

This is important. All publishers love strong DRM and with the A4, Apple can offer the strongest DRM on the planet. That's what you need if you want to get music, movies, books, etc onto your platform. You have to convince publishers that digital versions of their products can't be pirated, they can't be hacked.

Apple has made what it considers to be an unhackable system.

That also means you can't clone it. You won't be able to port the iPad/iPhone OS to another system, as you can with the Mac OS, and run applications and content.

What's next from the PA Semi team? It has to be a multicore A44, so that you can run several DRM enabled pieces of content simultaneously, such as listening to music while you read on the iPad -- which you cannot do with the first version of iPad.

Then an A1, a version for the iPhone/iPod.

Apple Inside...

Apple is now a chipmaker. But the chips will only be used in its products, at least initially. Apple has spent more than half-a-billion dollars to develop what it believes will give it a strong competitive advantage, and that it could not buy from current chip vendors.

However, I can see Apple allowing the A4 to be used in PCs and other devices made by others. Because the A4 is designed to work with Apple approved content that comes through its iTunes, iBooks, and AppStore - its online stores. Why not let HP systems, for example, access Apple store media? Apple gets its revenue share either way. Not much profit for HP, but at least its customers are happy they can access rich, high quality digital media.

In the near future, there might be a little bit of Apple inside lots of computers and devices from many different manufacturers. Apple might even offer it for free, subsidized by media sales. You'll find 'Apple Inside' alongside 'Intel Inside.'

Oracle recently completed its acquisition of Sun Microsystems, it now has the SPARC microprocessor; IBM has its POWER microprocessor; Apple has the A4.

The question now is: Does Microsoft need to have its own chip? What about Google? They both want to sell media. Youtube, for example, has started renting movies.

How will they convince publishers that their DRM systems are good enough? That they have unhackable DRM?

From e-media to i-media...

If I'm right about reading the tea leaves, Steve Jobs has a killer strategy to dominate the sale of all media. Excellent job Mr Jobs.


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