What's Behind Apple's P.A. Semi Purchase

Apple's purchase of a microprocessor design firm has triggered a wave of speculation over what the computer maker plans to do with its newly acquired assets. Perhaps, the thinking goes, the purchase means a new chip to power future iPhone models. Or maybe it will push Apple into new areas of portable computing. It might even mean a return of sorts to the company's PowerPC days.

But after a closer look at the deal, the answer could be--and probably is--none of the above.

The deal stirring up all this musing is Apple's US$278 million purchase of P.A. Semi, first reported this week by Forbes. News that Apple had bought the chip-maker led to blogosphere's near-immediate conclusion that Apple planned to use that PA Semi's dual-core, 64-bit, low-power PWRficient processor in future mobile products.

Forbes' initial report, for example claimed the P.A. Semi deal "could spell a new future for Apple's flagship iPhone." Ars Technica concluded that Apple's move "disses Intel's Atom"-a reference to the new low-power processor line from Apple's chipmaker of choice.

Not so fast, folks.

Our take, shared by numerous other industry analysts, is that Apple's relationship with Intel is strong and continuing. Instead, as Tim Bajarin, president of consulting firm Creative Strategies, told Macworld, adding P.A. Semi to Apple's holdings seems to be "more about buying the talent needed to help customize designs on various chips Apple will need if they are to continue to innovate."

Put another way, Apple didn't buy P.A. Semi for its PWRficient processor (known more prosaically to chipheads as the PA6T-1682M). Instead, it bought the engineering expertise and low-power savvy of that company's 150-person team in order to better work with suppliers such as Intel.

PWRficient vs. Penryn

A quick comparison of the PWRficient processor and Intel's line provides proof. First, although the PWRficient can indeed be considered a "low-power" chip when compared to other processors of its class, it is in no way power-miserly enough to fit into either an iPhone or a pocketable UMPC (ultra-mobile PC). Its power requirements (known as its TDP, for Thermal Design Power) peak at 25 watts, which is far too greedy for handheld use. Even with all of its circuitry asleep, it still requires a full watt of power--your iPhone of The Future would be gasping for battery-breath in an unacceptably short time.

Compare the PWRficient processor's TDP with the ulta-low-power Penryn mobile processors that Intel will reportedly release later this spring. Running at 1.2GHz and 1.4GHz, those Intel chips are scheduled to have TDPs in the 10-watt range. And later this year, Intel plans to release an entirely new line of processors codenamed Nahalem, which are certain to include ultra-low TDP variants, as well. With these chips in the pipeline, there's no need for the PWRficient in Apple's lineup.

Then there's Intel's aforementioned Atom processor line. Although the PWRficient is a far more capable chip than anything in the Atom line, its TDP keeps it from following the Atoms-which have TDPs of less than a tenth of the PWRficient's-into phones, UMPCs, and even ultra-mobile laptops such as the Asus EeePC.

Finally, there's the simple fact that the PWRficient uses the same instruction set as Apple's pre-Intel microprocessor, the PowerPC from IBM and Freescale (née Motorola). For our money, it's extremely unlikely that Apple would force its developers to resume coding-and, especially, optimizing their code-for the PowerPC. Not going to happen--especially not after Apple moved away from the PowerPC nearly three years ago when it announced the transition to Intel-supplied chips.

Future possibilities

That said, there's currently one major Apple product that isn't open to third-party developers--the Apple TV. The PWRficient could find its way into that box, especially considering that the Apple TV is plugged into good ol' AC so TDP is a non-issue. That said, it's hard to fathom what Apple might gain from swapping the Apple TV's Intel processor with a PWRficient.

So don't look for a PWRficient processor in your iPhone or a future ultra-mobile 'Book. However, do look for contributions by members of the team that created it to appear in Apple's relationship with Intel and other component suppliers. As Apple has proven in the past with other acquisitions such as Silicon Color and Proximity, it's the engineers that count. In those two deals, for example, Apple added resources that resulted in Final Cut Studio 2's Color and Final Cut Server.

It's a safe bet that P.A. Semi's engineers won't be adapting the PWRficient for use in future Apple products. As Bajarin said, they instead "will serve as a specialized unit that works with third party vendors like Intel to make their chips more customized, especially when this is important to industrial design." To us, that sounds well worth $278 million.

[Rik Myslewski has been writing about the Mac since 1989. He has been editor in chief of MacAddict (now Mac|Life), executive editor of MacUser and director of MacUser Labs, and executive producer of Macworld Live.]

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