Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/04/23/apple_pasemi/

Only insanity would lead Apple to make a mobile chip play

Forget the iPhone. PA Semi's an embedded affair

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in Hardware, 23rd April 2008 17:36 GMT

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.

Bad Grief

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. ®