Apple's unhackable system...

Apple's unhackable system...

Summary: The mysterious Apple A4 microprocessor at the heart of the iPad is the key to understanding Apple's bid to dominate the media industry...


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.

Topics: Hardware, Apple, Networking, Processors, Security

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Are you sure?

    Tom, are you sure about the lack of multitasking? Apple has locked out
    multitasking from third party developer programs, but not for its in-
    house applications. Have you tried listening to music while writing with
    Pages, or are you just making assumptions?

    You could well be correct, Tom. I just want to know how you arrived at
    this conclusion.
    Marcos El Malo
    • I agree

      Not be able to listen to iTunes music while reading? That would be a HUGE omission! I find it hard to believe the iPad will not be able to do something every iPhone and iPod Touch can do.
      • RE: Apple's unhackable system...

        Thank you and good luck. <a href="">replica hermes</a>
    • Multi-core and Multi-tasking are two different things.

      Whether or not the A4 is multi-core or not has no impact on multi-tasking. Multi-user, multi-tasking operating systems pre-date the multi-core chips by 40 years or more (think Unix, VMS, OS/360, Windows NT, AIX, OS/2...). Multi-cores may help with threading tasks, and make multi-tasking more efficient, but multi-cores are not a requirement.
    • Multitasking...

      That was from the initial reports from people that said they had played
      with it...
      • Understood, same as iPhone

        iPhone can multi-task... but only the native Apple applications. I have not heard if the iPad can or not, but I hope it's at least comparable to iPhone. Does Apple limit 3rd party apps this way to ensure a good experience? Or is it to limit competition on one hand from the developers they are trying to bring on board with the other hand?
        • It's neither

          The limit the multitasking so as to further abstract away the
          "computer". If you don't have multitasking you don't need UI to
          support it (this is harder than it sounds on a system with no "windows"
          and no persistent UI elements). Users don't think about memory or
          processor speed, the system doesn't need a VM. This is important, a
          VM is a really bad thing on a system with Flash storage, the constant
          page writes would damage the Flash chips pretty quickly. I know the
          perceived wisdom here is that multitasking is a good thing - in reality
          it opens some nasty stuff.

          The iPad is meant to provide a seamless experience without the
          "computer stuff" being evident. To do this a lot of what's taken for
          granted on a "PC" (or Mac) has been stripped away. For example the
          user cannot see the filesystem (there is one, but it has no UI, it is as if
          it didn't exist). Yes the limits what the iPad does - but the user
          doesn't deal with "computer stuff". This also leads the iPad to not be
          totally self-sufficient, it needs to lean on iTunes running on a "full"

          Under the covers the iPad can multitask - really well, but this
          functionality is only exposed in a limited way, and developers cannot
          add to the burden of what the machine is doing. Seen one way this is
          a good thing - the iPad is always fast and has no memory issues (an
          application might run slow, or run out of memory - but that
          application is all that's affected, the rest of the system isn't - or at
          least that's the perception, you return to the home screen to run
          something else the application that was hogging resources vanishes,
          making all those resources available again).

          This is a design choice, it isn't there to restrict anything, it wasn't
          taken lightly. Applications should save their state on exit, and restore
          that state on startup, most of the time the user should be unaware
          that anything happened, they see the same state they left and are
          quite oblivious to the fact that the application wasn't actually there
          waiting all the time. If you think about it, very few applications really
          need to multitask, for most a "context switch" would be enough -
          iPhone OS just makes the simulation of that a responsibility of the
          application (if it's appropriate).
          • wow

            wow, jeremy, an insightful and intelligent post here on zdnet! i can still
            dream... thank you. more of your educated opinions, please.
          • Seconding ellroy's statement...

            well thought out and written.
    • Tom is stating his own speculations as facts. Sad.

      For example "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 a guess, nothing more.

      Had you said "Is Apple trying to create an unhackable system" then you'd have been fine. However, stating that they are when you're on the record as not knowing what's in the processor is a little disingenuous, no?
    • Talking about music in other apps?

      I'm not sure I understand the continued meme that you can't have music
      while doing something else. The app just has to support controlling the
      music (like practically all of the exercise apps do). This hasn't been a big
      deal for a while.
  • But wait, I thought closed, proprietary systems were bad. Now its not?

    Or is it just bad when it is anyone else, especially, say, Microsoft?
    • I don't think....

      I don't think the author is saying that a DRM-chip is "good" or "bad", but rather that it's clever.
    • Yeah pretty much.....

      We all here at Zdnet and the world are rooting for Apple to lock everyone in. Now mind you its only Apple because we have so much faith in them. They are the good guys so we will always let good guys dictate everything about your system to you. We dream of a day when all systems will be owned by the maker and given permission to use it with a nice cash sum.

      Its for your best interest man, can't you all see that? Its so cool now to be locked down like in a corporate network. Who knew we all wanted a corporate network experience on the go?
      • @daMan25

        You are already locked down in the corporate world with Windows.
        • MS doesn't tell anyone which applications they may or may not run

          Huge difference, that...
          • @Qbt

            Funny, I choose to install and run any app I want my Mac. I'm not sure what your talking about.
          • Huh?

            Maybe you want to put that remark into English so we can understand it.
            Neither Microsoft nor Apple says anything about what you may or may
            not run. But for the record:

            A Windows system can run Windows applications.

            A Macintosh can run Macintosh applications. It can run Windows
            applications, too.
          • Well......

            If Apple didn't control the OS as they do I would be able to run Mac apps as well on my x64. I think we are referring to the iPhone and iPad. These systems are controlled through the app store so get a clue and get with the topic.
          • Not since the Anti-Trust trial

            Before that Microsoft would threaten OEMS for daring to install non
            Microsoft applications. This is quite a good read