Was Intel's x86 the "gateway drug" for Apple's ARM?

Summary:Apple's move to the x86 Intel architecture for the Macintosh in 2005 may have only been a temporary stop on the way to its logical end-state: the acquisition of PA Semi and the creation of ARM-based personal computers.


I have been told that I am someone who speculates a great deal. However, like anyone who tries to make predictions about the industry, such speculation is based upon observing historical behavior and analyzing current trends on order to try to develop a vision for a future state. Other friends of mine like to call this "pulling stuff out of my ass". I'll meet them halfway.

If you closely examine the history of Apple, you will see that time and time again, the company makes strategic choices which allow it to increasingly take control of its customers, its ecosystem and its intellectual property. Indeed, Apple has always isolated itself from the rest of the industry, but as it has matured, it has become even more of a locked-down ecosystem.

 

The History

The Macintosh, Apple's flagship computer product, has undergone quite a bit of changes since its launch in 1984. Originally, it was based on Motorola's 68000 architecture and used custom firmware along with its proprietary operating system. Ten years later, in order to make pace with technology and performance, the Macintosh hardware architecture was changed to PowerPC and CHRP, along with other relevant OS changes.

In 1997, Apple acquired NeXT, the company that Steve Jobs founded after his ouster as Apple CEO in 1984, and NeXT's remaining intellectual property -- the OpenStep operating system and APIs -- became the foundation of Mac OS X.

In 2005, When Apple could no longer extract any more performance out of the desktop-class PowerPC chips and started to fall considerably behind the PC in technology, it went to the only other architecture it could viably pursue -- the Intel x86. Which brings us where we are today. In 2010.

In 2010, the Mac faces a number of problems that can only be resolved by yet another paradigm shift. One of these problems is that although the x86 Mac uses a different type of firmware than the Intel PC architecture, the Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) -- Mac hackers have been successful in being able to trick the operating system to run on much less expensive clone hardware using software-based EFI emulation on PC BIOS using modified Darwin bootloaders.

One of these hackers, Rudy Pedraza, started up a mail order business in South Florida and sold what amounted to glorified PCs running Apple's Mac OS X. That company, Psystar, was litigated into oblivion.

While Apple through the force of its financial might was able to successfully litigate a tiny American company and make its cloning operations cease, the company still faces the real possibility that other nations with less favorable legal systems may be able to sustain businesses based on cloned Macs. And while Psystar is dead, the technology that it used to build its systems continues to be heavily developed by the clandestine Hackintosh community.

Additionally, and probably most importantly, further advances in X86 virtualization technology which permits abstraction of the OS from the hardware could potentially allow a consumer in the near future to install the Mac OS on their own PCs without a whole lot of fuss. Apple has been resisting implementing virtualization on Mac OS X, and for good reason -- they don't want to enable the people that could possibly damage their cash cow.

Based on Apple's patterns of 10-year technology refresh cycles and the company's increased isolationist behavior, all of this points to one thing -- another paradigm shift for the company is due. If 2005 and moving to x86 was the last paradigm shift, then the next one is due in 2014 or 2015. However, just like any Silicon Valley earthquake, you always get a few tremors and smaller quakes before the Big One hits.

The Future

While the iPod was the first little "tremor" that signaled a trend towards becoming more of a consumer electronics company than a computer company, it was the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 was the first "quake" which indicated another massive change was in store for the company.

With the iPhone, Apple ported much of its core BSD-based operating system, Darwin, to the ARM architecture, along with its Objective C development platform from Mac OS X. While it must have seemed logical to many to re-use existing assets in order to facilitate the development of the iPhone on the ARM architecture, what Apple really did was stage their transition/migration plan according to what they would actually be doing with their next generation of desktop and portable computers -- Multi-core ARM-based Macs.

Apple's $278 million purchase of Palo Alto Semiconductor (PA Semi) in 2008 gave the company the final piece of the puzzle they needed to become fully independent of Intel and any other microprocessor vendor, and would allow them to return to the completely closed system which they enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s.

The first fruit of Apple's labor with PA Semi is the generation 1 iPad, which uses specially designed custom ARM Cortex A8-based silicon, the A4 processor.

While the 1Ghz A4 isn't powerful enough to run a Mac today, I believe that the next logical step is for Apple to continue to evolve the silicon into more and more cores and at higher clock speeds. With iPad 2, we might very well see 2 cores and certainly a higher clock speed.

The next step would be to move to 4 cores and larger amounts of cache, which may present enough computing power to form the basis of the next generation Macbooks or iMacs.

It is not implausible that within five years, six and eight-core or even sixteen-core Apple ARM chips could be released. Large amounts of cores with lower power chips are not out of the question, as this is where Intel and AMD are both going, and where Sun was going until it went down the path of acquisition.

Given the fact that there are now more applications for the iPhone/iPad ecosystem than there are for the Mac, and that the App Store software distribution is completely controlled by Apple, it makes perfect sense that Apple would move the Mac to a 100 percent proprietary platform, now that it is seeded by many developers and many applications.

It is also notable that the ARM architecture itself given the amount of shipped chips on cell phones and other devices rivals the x86 desktop ecosystem or possibly will even exceed it in the near future depending on whose figures you look at. Intel itself is already examining this market very closely, particularly with its most recent acquisition of Wind River, which it purchased in June of 2009.

Wind River creates software development and hypervisor stacks for embedded systems architectures, of which TI's OMAP and the Qualcomm Snapdragon, both ARM chips, are among the most popular used in Smartphones today.

Intel also continues to manufacture the ARMADA (formerly Intel XScale) embedded processor for Marvell. Given this heavy trend towards embedded I believe that Intel may follow Apple's lead and decide to purchase an ARM/embedded asset, such as Marvell, Freescale Semiconductor or possibly even Texas Instruments.

It is not that much of a stretch to imagine a beefed-up iPad with a larger screen, keyboard and mouse, with multiple processor cores and back-end connectivity to Apple's massive datacenters running Cloud services. You can call this the Macintosh TNG, or the "Cloudintosh", but I already gave this computer a name.

The Screen

While I believe there will be Google/Linux-Screens and even Microsoft "Screens" (as evidenced by developments in Android, Chrome OS, Ubuntu, MeeGo and Windows 7 Phone Series) it actually makes sense for Apple to be the first company to pioneer with "Screen technology".

Effectively, the iPad is the first Screen or the Proto-Screen. The next logical step is to scale up the size of the display to full 1080p with a faster multi-core CPU, more powerful graphics processing with multi-tasking and windowing, with tons of Cloud horsepower to back it up -- a synthesis between iPhone OS and Mac OS where the entire means of production, the systems architecture and the software/content delivery mechanism to the device is entirely Apple-controlled.

Indeed, it is entirely possible that everything I have said is pure conjecture, and I could be inferring far too much from Apple's activities in the past three to five years.

When I do revisit this subject in 2015, I'm curious as to how close or how far off my predictions will be. Talk Back and Let Me Know what you think.

Topics: Software, Apple, Hardware, Intel, Operating Systems, Processors

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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