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Only insanity would lead Apple to make a mobile chip play

Forget the iPhone. PA Semi's an embedded affair

Comment So, here's the deal. If Steve Jobs can actually turn the acquisition of chip start-up PA Semi into a fruitful mobile endeavor, then he's an even more fantastic genius than the world has guessed to date. Because this deal seems to make almost no sense at first blush if you swallow the souped-up iPhone line.

The conventional wisdom cropping up as a result of the Forbes story which broke word of the acquisition is that Apple will use PA Semi's low-power processor designs in future iPhones and other mobile devices. Using that as the base logic, most reports covering this tie-up then chalked the deal up to a blow against Intel, which figured to get its Atom chips into the iPhone one day.

Today, the iPhone runs on an ARM processor design, which affords Apple certain luxuries. Numerous semiconductor companies create variations of the ARM chip, so Apple can bring these people in and pick the most suitable parts at the most suitable prices. In addition, many of these ARM designs demonstrate solid performance while consuming low amounts of power - the key ingredients for mobile chips.

But when we talk about low power in the mobile market, we're really discussing things in the milliwatt range. PA Semi's processors - based on a variant of the PowerPC design from IBM - do low power on quite a different scale. They eat up between 5 watts and 13 watts at 2.0GHz, which is marvelous for the company's target markets in the server and storage sector but less fantastic if you're trying to put a cell phone that won't fry your genitals into a trouser pocket.

Could PA Semi come up with an even lower-power design for the mobile market? You're damn right it could. The company has some of the top processor minds on the planet, including low-power and multi-core chip experts.

The rub, however, is that such a chip has never appeared on a PA Semi roadmap. So, we'd have to assume the company will take a couple of years at minimum to prepare such a part - on paper.

Even if PA Semi had a proper mobile part working in the labs, Apple would be gambling its entire iPhone business by picking the processor. First off, Apple would need to go through a software overhaul to move onto PowerPC. Secondly, it would need to bet that a chip start-up, even with Apple's cash piles behind it, could produce such a processor on time and continue producing subsequent chips on time. Over and over, we've seen chip start-ups die believing they could pull off such consistent magic, since creating and manufacturing these semiconductors proves very difficult.

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