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Apple signals its mobile-graphics future

Cupertino's $4.8m hint

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Word surfaced today in a "Listing of shares" announcement by British SoC developer Imagination Technologies that "Apple Inc. is subscribing for 8,200,000 new shares of Imagination Technologies Group plc." Apple is shelling out around $4.8m for that 3.6 per cent stake in the graphics and video chip designer.

In a week when the Mac faithful are moping about Apple's impending tradeshowus interruptus, the news of the company's buying into Imagination Technologies came as a strong dose of good news, and one that augurs well for future display capabilities in Apple's mobile products - be they the iPhone, iPod, iNetBook, iTablet, or iCanOnlyImagine.

Imagination Technologies logo

Imagination Technologies describes itself as a company that "creates market-leading embedded graphics, video and display acceleration." Apple apparently agrees, as evidenced not only by this investment, but also by its use of Imagination's PowerVR MBX graphics technology in the iPhone and iPod Touch.

The PowerVR MBX is a fine piece of work, but Imagination's next steps up in graphics goodness, the PowerVR SGX GPU and PowerVR VXD Video Decoder, are what bear watching for auguries of future product capabilities.

The PowerVR MBX supports the open source OpenGL ES 1.1 API set (along with OpenVG 1.0 and Direct3D Mobile), which was designed for fixed-function 2D and 3D graphics hardware. The SGX and VXD support the more-powerful OpenGL ES 2.0 API set, which adds fully programmable 3D-graphics support to the mix.

The PowerVR SDX's Universal Scalable Shader Engine provides - you guessed it - shader-based 3D graphics, all in a low-power, efficient, mobile-focused package. The PowerVR VXD offloads video-decoding duties from a mobile device's CPU, and can support a variety of codecs, including H.264, H.263, MPEG-4, MPEG-2, and WMV9/VC-1.

OpenGL ES logo

Also of interest is that the PowerVR SDX supports the CPU-liberating capabilities of general-purpose computing on GPUs (GPGPU), which promise to greatly enhance such highly parallelized functions as media processing and voice recognition. As we reported last week, the Khronos Group - the same open-source clearinghouse that manages the OpenGL ES standards - has released the OpenCL 1.0 spec that will power the GPGPU-enhanced Mac OS 10.6, Snow Leopard, when it's released next year.

Seeing as how the OS running the iPhone and iPod Touch is a streamlined version of Mac OS X, there's little reason to doubt that a GPGPU-enabled Snow Leopard - which, if rumors are true, will be a highly optimized version of Mac OS X - will find itself shrunk even more to fit into Apple's next generation of mobile devices.

That is, of course, if Apple chooses to move up to the PowerVR SDX and VXD in its future mobile devices.

We'll go out on a limb and say, "Why the %$#@! not?"

After all, Apple acquired PA Semi back in April of this year, thus bringing on board the engineers they need to enhance their low-power mobile strategies. In September, Imagination announced that it had entered into a technology-licensing deal with "an international electronics systems company" and that it was "expected that Imagination's IP cores will feature in a number of new SoCs to be used in this company's future products." Few observers found it hard to guess who that "international electronics systems company" was: Apple.

Also, in April Imagination announced that they had "signed a licence agreement with Samsung ... with respect to certain POWERVR SGX graphics and VXD video IP cores" - and guess who manufactures the ARM11-based SoC that powers the iPhone and iPod Touch? Bingo: Samsung.

All signs point to future mobile products from Apple which benefit from greatly enhanced graphics and media capabilities designed by Imagination, manufactured by Samsung, and shepherded by Apple's corps of ex-PA Semi engineers.

Looked at another way, Apple's $4.8m investment in Imagination Technologies is simply a good business decision. After all, if Apple's mobile future is as rosy as it appears, and if the company knows that it'll be a profitable customer for Imagination for the foreseeable future, those 8,200,000 shares are quite likely a smart investment.

Crafty folks, those Cupertinians.

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