Apple sneaks past Intel to make own processors?

If you listen to Intel, the last hold-outs against the x86 instruction set are about to fall — with super-powered Nehalem swarms mopping up the high end of massed Power PC supercomputers, and sneaky little Atoms nibbling away at the ARM embedded market.

commentary: If you listen to Intel, the last hold-outs against the x86 instruction set are about to fall — with super-powered Nehalem swarms mopping up the high end of massed Power PC supercomputers, and sneaky little Atoms nibbling away at the ARM embedded market.

Apple doesn't listen to Intel much. While everyone's been assuming that an Atom-powered iPhone was a done deal, and getting used to the idea that MacBooks are just Intel laptops with a different OS, Steve Jobs nipped out the back and bought PA Semi. Which is a small CPU company, led by the bloke who was lead designer on the Alpha and StrongARM chips, and which now makes low-power (like ARM) PowerPC-compatible chips that have comparable performance to Intel's desktop chips.

Apple can now make its own processors.

At this point, things can go a number of ways. PA Semi's last big announcement — a dual-core, 2GHz, 25watt processor with lots and lots of integrated IO, networking and other delights — was more than a year ago, so it's safe to say that there'll be other products ready to go round about now. A quad-core was promised for this year, for example.

There's no way anything like this is going into a smartphone — it would make a fine laptop or desktop — but whether PA Semi had something more portable on the drawing board, nobody's saying; although it certainly does now.

What happens next? Apple now has a very good CPU design team, together with a license for a very capable architecture. The company thrives on differentiation, something that's been getting harder and harder to do with Intel. I know everyone's fixated on that darn iPhone, but for this year at least, PA Semi is a much better fit for other parts of the Apple world, and now Apple can break free of the Intel roadmap that its competitors are marching on.

While this will only make it harder for the rest of us to predict what Apple will do next, Jobs may consider that alone worth the quarter-billion dollar price tag...