back to article Apple buys chip maker

Apple is to buy a microprocessor design company founded by one of the key minds behind the ARM chip design that went on to become Intel's erstwhile XScale family. The firm in question is PA Semi, which currently develops low-power processors based on the PowerPC architecture. Apple's dealt with PA before, as a possible …


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  1. Regis Terme
    Jobs Halo

    I fail to see an issue

    Apple would have little to no difficulty in supporting two or more hardware platforms, even incompatible versions of the same one requiring different binaries. OSX (or rather, the underlying mach level) supports multiple architectures in the same binary, both on the desktop *and* on the iPhone / iPod platform. It's not even difficult for the developer : on my lowly 32 bit PowerPC desktop I can happily build binaries that will run on all four of the curent desktop combinations (32 / 64 bit, intel and PowerPC), and, potentially, any other platform that might be around the corner. All it means is that the build takes a little longer, and produces fatter binaries (pun intended).

    Sure, for deployment on "small" hardware this could be a problem, but it would hardly be difficult to set up a process that runs "lipo" (which strips out unused architecture-specific stuff) on newly installed apps when installing on somethng like the iPhone/iPod etc. to keep things easy for the user.

  2. Julian
    Thumb Up

    St. George would cry!

    Woah Tony - where did you get this idea from?

    "Different generations of ARM processor, and versions from different manufacturers, are often incompatible at the binary level, forcing developers essentially to create entirely separate versions of their apps for each CPU they use in their hardware."

    It's perfectly possible to treat ARM CPUs as upwardly compatible from ARM2 (with 26-bit addressing) to CortexA8. I should have some idea, I've been developing for StrongArm/XScale/OMap/Samsung/Philips Arm-based devices for 8 years.

    We think that x86 is inherently compatible, but that's just an illusion due to its ubiquity - people invest a great deal of effort in adapting compilers and developing layers of emulation to mask decades of stupid design. Otherwise, why did it take until Windows '95 before PC users could easily run 32-bit software designed for the 386 which appeared 10 YEARS earlier?

    Our investment in x86 is literally an anti-competitive waste of energy: near-monopolised product sources; slow boot ups; hot CPUs; massive transistor counts; expensive fabs.

    In comparison, ARM is a dream come true. Highly compatible for over 2 decades; almost entirely upward compatible for over 12 years; versatile beyond belief from the CortexM1 (which packs 486 power into 8086 transistor counts) to CortexA9 (which packs Atom performance into Pentium transistor counts with milliwatt energy consumption). And it's got a better, wittier name; not something plagiarised from a puny (but clever) 8-bit computer that launched the company that created ARM in the first place.

    So there's nothing around that's better than ARM: that's why it's outselling x86 by a factor of 10. And it's British. And it's St. George's day by Harry, so there's no excuse.

    ["It's always Thumb™s up for ARM!"]

  3. Steve Todd

    Atom is still too power hungry

    2.5 watts of power consumption may be great for laptop class machines, but it's still at least 10 times too much for a phone sized device. Just look at the size of the battery each has to work with (and remember that the screen, radio etc also draw power).

  4. Jango

    Game Console

    Could it be for the game consoles that Apple reportedly filed a patent application for as reported a few months ago ??? But I'm not sure if the acquired chip makers can design processors of that Calibre

  5. Ed
    Thumb Up

    Games console

    You can be fairly sure Apple won't make a games console. They've shown little interest in games on Macs for a start. I think they can see the use for games on the iPhone/iPod touch as a way to provide 'casual' games, but you can't see them going after the hardcore market (Xbox 360 & PS3) nor copying Nintendo.

    I think they'd consider their brand to be somewhat diluted if they started making a product that's (perceived to be) aimed at teenage boys without a social life.

    Of course, they could completely turn the concept of consoles on it's head, but I doubt it. I can see them possibly expanding Apple TV to support games but that's it.

    Julian: Thanks for your post, interesting :)

  6. Mark Pipes


    Maybe there is a low-power P5 (or P6) laptop in the future? Maybe??

    Would be a "Good Thing" to see Apple revive the Power line of machines, even if only for higher-end/special order boxes. Intel hardware is much to sluggish.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I am not surprised about this

    When PA Semi was started it embarked on a product that was entirely geared towards Apple and their low power dual core PPC G5 clone was certainly better than anything Motorola or IBM ever had to offer Apple for the notebook. Yet, as we all know, Apple switched to Intel's x86 instead. Some of us were surprised by that as the PA Semi G5 alternative presumably would have had an easier migration path.

    One thing Apple lost when switching to Intel was leverage. They had leverage against Motorola with IBM and they had leverage against IBM with Intel. But once they went Intel there was no more leverage. Sure, there is AMD in theory, but I don't think Intel would take Apple serious if they said "we can always buy from AMD if you don't do this or that".

    Since Apple have a complete set of development tools for OSX and applications which target both PPC and x86, in theory, they could just move back to PPC as long as they keep the software PPC ready (at least in their lab). But they pretty much burned bridges with both Motorola and IBM. If there was another PPC chip maker with a competitive product, that would give Apple back the leverage they lost.

    For this reason I have long believed that Apple was watching PA Semi and if push came to shove, they would throw PA Semi a bone just to keep them in business. I imagined that they might run their Airport base stations and Apple TVs or other such non-core products on PA Semi chips, just so PA Semi won't disappear for lack of customers.

    Well, buying PA Semi outright is another way of keeping them alive. To my mind, as long as PA Semi doesn't lose money and have enough for R&D to keep those low power chips competitive, even if only in the lab, then Apple will win even if they never use any of those chips.

    In other words, Apple just acquired the leverage they lost when they went with Intel. Smart move.

    That isn't to say that some Apple product will not eventually use PA Semi chips. It's likely that they will use the chips for something, two birds with one stone, so to speak.

  8. amanfromMars Silver badge

    Swinging Britons.....Remember those lazy hazy Waterloo Sunsets.

    Whatever happened to all those Likely Lads and Lasses of Flower Power?

    Sold out to the System, do you Think, for their Thirty Pieces of Silver and a Fat Bottomed Girl/Fast Car? Or Coming of a Certain Age, Ready, Willing and Able and Enabled to Take Control. Well, the SMARTer Ones, who can String a Sentence or Three together anyway, Man.

    I love your Enthusiasm, Julian, but why have they not set the Firmament alight, if they are supposed to be so Good?

    Still awaiting the KillerApp/ARG/Mobile Coalition of the Thrilling? Something to Take Over/Give the World AIMake Over?

    Anything else would be just playing Lip Service Really, wouldn't it?

  9. Bounty


    nah, they did this cuz psystar broke their hardware lock-in.

  10. Daniel B.

    @Games console

    "You can be fairly sure Apple won't make a games console. They've shown little interest in games on Macs for a start."

    I suppose you're a recent newcomer to Macs. When I switched to PC, Macs didn't just have games, they had better versions of computer games of those also released for DOS. Check out "Wolfenstein: First, Second, Third encounter": that version had more weapons and even an automap feature.

    Descent had a CD with RedBook audio (which in PC only came with Descent2) and 640x480 resolution modes. PC version had the same resolution as Doom.

    SimCity was BORN in the Mac. Populous was Mac-only, made by those who later would make HALO.

    Hey, even Dark Castle: when my dad was doing his PhD, the screams of the "slaves" in Trouble 3 were heard all around the campus!

    'Twas the rise of Windoze '95 that turned the tide: all the game industry ran to the PC and began the ugly trend of DirectX gaming. Ugh.

  11. Ian McNeill

    more clues

    Two interesting and separate facts tie in with this.

    1) Samsung today released details of its new ARM11 + 3D graphics chips (Samsung supplies the iphone processor that has an Arm9 plus 3D IP from Imagination technologies). The new chip appears NOT to use IMG IP.

    2) 2nd half of last year, an "electronic systems company" licensed IMG's latest graphics, SGX. This is the first time that a non-semiconductor company licensed IMG IP. The licence stated that the licencee would use existing and/or new IMG partners to integrate the IP into an Soc. The electronic systems company is widely assumed to be Apple.

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  13. Anonymous Coward

    the new Amiga

    hmm, PA Semi, PowerPC and low-enery usage. all things touted some time ago. I think Apple are planning to release the 'new Amiga'

  14. Wilco
    Thumb Down

    A lot of FUD

    Tony, there was no need to spread more FUD about ARM - Intel is doing a great job already...

    Julian is right - ARM CPUs are far more compatible than x86 cores. For example AMD and Intel CPUs don't even support the same set of instructions. A large amount of effort is required to get applications to run across the numerous x86 cores. Of course much of this is hidden by gigabytes of BIOS, OS and driver code.

    In fact it is x86, not ARM, where you need to maintain several different versions of the same application (for example if you want to use one of the many SSE variations).

    Intel is spreading a lot of FUD on Atom vs ARM. They compare it against 6 year old ARMs running at 1/4 of the MHz and conclude Atom is faster - wow! The fact is Atom is slower than the latest ARMs, and it's power consumption is way too high to be feasible for a mobile phone. Even when sleeping it uses 100mW, which drains a battery rather quickly (recharge every 24 hours if no calls are made). Most ARMs use less power when running near their maximum frequency than an Atom doing nothing at all...

    I don't understand why people think it is a good idea to put an x86 core in a mobile phone. You're not going to be able to run Vista on it anyway, nor would anyone want to run any of the bloated Windows applications. So when you specially adapt applications, why not compile for ARM to get code that is smaller, runs faster and uses far less power than the x86 equivalent?

  15. Graham Lockley

    If my memory serves me well..

    >Populous was Mac-only

    Now there was me thinking I'd played it on an Amiga A500.

    Come on you Amigatards (TM), rally round :)

  16. vincent himpe
    Jobs Horns

    don't they already

    make shi ... oh wait. never mind it's a p , not a t ...

  17. Daniel B.


    Oops! I didn't know there was an Amiga version! Now I look like those who think Test Drive was born in DOS (I had the C-64 version.)

    Anyway, I forgot to mention in my previous post that Apple is no stranger in the console market. Anyone remember the Apple Pippin? Um... maybe not. It didn't sell, much like the 3d0 :(

  18. Patrick

    Only for the IP and engineering-talent.

    Apple is in it for the IP and engineer talent grab. They are not interested in the products, nor the customers.

    Don't rush into conclusions until you sort it out.

  19. Jeffrey Nonken Silver badge

    @Daniel B

    "Populous was Mac-only..."

    Silly me, thinking that I was running on a PeeCee. Must've been hallucinating.


    Tux, because I feel like it.

  20. A P
    Thumb Down

    re : more clues

    Ian, Just to clarify, the Iphone has a Samsung ARM1176 based CPU running at 600mhz+ not (arm9 as you suggest).

    I personally don't think they intend to move into the mobile space. I hope they leave Intel and move back to PowerPC with their desktop and laptop machines.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    PA Semi's IP == PA Semi's only product


    you are talking nonsense. PA Semi only has one product and that is its IP, they are a fabless semiconductor company, no production facilities, only designs, nothing else.

    If Apple is after PA Semi's IP as you said, then that automatically means they are after PA Semi's products, it is one and the same thing.

    If Apple is only after the personnel, that would be rather silly, think about it, almost 300 million USD for 150 people, almost 2 million USD per employee, laughable.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dual CPU strategy not unusual for Unix based hardware vendors

    "I hope they leave Intel and move back to PowerPC with their desktop and laptop machines."

    Maybe they will offer PPC based Macs again at some point, it wouldn't be difficult to do now that they have all their software development tools dual-arch capable. But even if they do, what makes you think that would mean abandoning x86? It would be more likely then that they just use both. In fact it is rather common for Unix based hardware vendors to use two CPU architectures. IBM do it, SUN do it, HP do it. Apple could well do the same. One might even argue that Apple's development toolchain is better suited to a dual CPU architecture product line than that of any other vendor.

    So, yes, it's not impossible that there will again be PPC Macs, but it is rather unlikely that there will be no x86 Macs.

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