Why would Apple pay $278m, as reported, for the right to inherit all of this grief when it could continue on grabbing established, always improving gear from the ARM crowd or turn to the machine that is Intel?
What's amusing is that Apple has been through this situation with PA Semi before and decided against the grief. Apple once considered PA Semi as a desktop and laptop replacement for its aging PowerPC chips, but shocked the start-up by revealing a deal with Intel. Apple had already invested in substantial software work with PA Semi and even had a number of employees working at the company. PA Semi's CEO Dan Dobberpuhl was furious to learn about the Intel pact in the press. But Apple was willing to burn that bridge in order to buy into Intel's reliability and economics.
It would be easy enough to argue that Steve Jobs, now fueled by billions of dollars in iPod gains, has attained a new level of arrogance, which makes the prospect of a few glitches worth the risk this time around. Perhaps he figures that PA Semi's technology is so damned impressive that it will give Apple a unique edge in the mobile device game.
Funny enough, however, not even PA Semi seems to believe this.
The company has churned through more than $100m in funding to establish a roadmap which stretches out to 16-core parts that would have nestled inside data center hardware. To date, PA Semi has secured a handful of significant wins, including NEC's storage group and Mercury Computer Systems (a server maker). The company would brag about these deals, saying that many, many more similar arrangements were on the way.
But selling out for $278m indicates to us that PA Semi did not view itself as a viable long-term concern. Its technology was not wonderful enough to make major suppliers pass on the mainstream processor makers, who have also turned to focus on low-power chips.
Er, but maybe Apple figures it can work past the muscle of ARM and Intel and out do them in the end?
Rather, I think Apple is up to something rather different than what it's letting on so far.
Outside of the server and storage space, PA Semi did have a path into the embedded market. So, perhaps Apple is actually looking to go after a rather broad new fleet of devices to round out the Apple TV play. It could dabble with a variety of consoles and media delivery systems or even expand into gaming units with some Cell help.
This strategy makes more sense than the mobile line being peddled elsewhere. After all, Apple's not really the engineering genius that it claims. Intel, for example, did the majority of the work around the MacBook Air, which is why you saw Lenovo, another Intel customer, release the very similar X300 just a couple of weeks after Apple's grand launch. Apple did little more than excise an Ethernet port and slap a white case on the unit. Apple is not an innards expert, so the idea of it getting into the microprocessor business simply to "gain a competitive design edge" is ludicrous.
No, $278m fails to buy a world-class mobile chip arsenal in this day and age. It does, however, buy some expertise and possible new consumer electronics avenues.
After all, if PA Semi really had the making of a mobile processor empire in the works, it would have stayed independent or demanded an insanely greater pay out.
Should Apple really think it can perform magic and turn the PA Semi gear into the base of future iPhones, then we're rather worried for the company. You can guarantee that such a charge would have enough bumps along the way to wreck Apple's rather impressive mobile momentum. ®
@ Daniel B.: '[..] then saying some time after that "Intel is the way!"' -- well, there were 8 years between the introduction of the G4 and the switch to Intel. Switching back to PPC within within 2 years after going through a huge amount of trouble to switch to Intel in the first place might look a little ludicrous. Whereas at the time it came out, the PPC 7500 (aka G4) actually beat Intel's chips lengthwise and broadside in performance per watt, throughput per cycle and actual just plain performance in practical applications like image or video editing.
@ Geoff: Good point, which I had overlooked. That might really be an interesting thing to observe -- though AFAIK the current line of XServe RAIDs is not manufactured by Apple but rebranded OEM ware.
@ Niall: Compared spec-for-spec, I find Apple not all that overpriced -- no, really. I guess it depends on where in their product life cycles you compare prices, but at least with the notebooks, they're not all that expensive if you compare same-spec machines from the likes of Dell, Acer, Toshiba, et al. (I last compared about half a year ago, then decided to install Linux on a MacBook Pro because it was about 250 quid less than what the others were offering me at the time in the same performance range).
But that aside, I agree about the "cool" factor -- plus, since they already have the well-tested PPC version of MacOS X out there anyway... *shrug* how could they resist? And the bonus is that MacOS X scales pretty well with the number of cores involved (it's BSD on a Mach kernel after all), so they actually _could_ go for the big iron if they wanted to. They already have one PPC installation in the upper ranges of the top 500 supercomputer list after all.
Disclaimer: I am not a fanboi of any hardware or software supplier. I don't drink Kool-Aid of any kind. But I can still be fascinated by developments...
whilst I think "sleepy's" comments are good, that Apple could license a variant of PPC to Intel, I think it's more likely that Apple want to own their own Arm variant processor instead of buying 3rd part versions, and who better to craft one that a low-power specialist?
now, if I was being really cynical, I could suggest that Apple were going to roll a custom processor into iPhone so that noone outside Apple would have a working development platform, and therefore make the thing relatively unhackable; as it is, anyone with Arm SDK can have a go!
These chips are used in NEC's storage line. At the moment Apple produces the XServe RAID, which is a low end storage system, what if Apple is looking to produce a Midsize / Enterprise level storage system based on OSX? If they could build something easier to run than a NetApp, then it would sell like hot cakes, practically zero training requirements, simple setup and management, ZFS filesystem to do snapshots and point in time restorations, time machine interface to do restorations. I think these could well end up in an Apple branded NAS device, if not a NAS/SAN hybrid device.
There is definately a market for storage at the moment and it's one of the few places where other manufacturers have an entry into media organisations where Apple has a traditional customer base. These devices are also high margin, which fits with apples sales philosophy.
I was thinking the exact same thing. You get your low energy boxen, and not only are they cool because they produce shit all heat, they're cool because they're Apple. That said, for them to be taken up in any vast quantities, Apple will have to disregard their "pay for the label" pricing scheme.
There were some other interesting points made in some of the other comments too. It will be interesting to see what this eventually turns out to be...
Re: There is no way back to PPC Macs
"-- that would be a complete marketing nightmare, and Apple is highly unlikely to do that on the consumer and workstation fronts."
Oh really? Like Jobs doing presentations on how the G4 0wns the Pentium processor because its a better arch, and then saying some time after that "Intel is the way!" Yeah, right.
They might actually solve the bootcamp trouble by patching in a "daughter board" with the x86 basics. This was already possible 15 years ago with OrangePC. These days, that option might be actually cost-effective now.