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Apple, In-house GPUs, and the Consequences

Apple has made huge progress in using its own silicon to power its mobile gear. The A-series processors, based on ARM silicon, are capable of performance that rivals traditional notebook personal computers with Intel Inside. Recent benchmarks of the 2017 iPad Pro reveal numbers that are faster than the latest MacBook and at least competitive with a MacBook Pro.

Indeed, some suggest that Apple is missing the boat by not ditching Intel and switching to its own chips. But this is a really complicated issue, and it’s also true that Intel is making progress in making their chips run a decent amount faster. The Kaby Lake CPUs used in the latest Mac notebooks exceed the performance of their predecessors by decent margins. So it may not be time now — or ever — for Apple to consider another processor migration.

That said, up till now, Apple has licensed designs from Imagination Technologies to provide the GPUs for such gear as iPhones and iPads. The UK firm receives royalties from the sale of these products. That these devices score well in benchmarks does indicate that the association has been productive. Until now.

In recent years, it has been rumored that Apple will go in-house to develop GPUs, and they have hired people, including some from Imagination, to move in that direction.

In April, the bottom fell out for Imagination, when Apple informed them that it will begin to move to its own GPUs over the next 15 months to two years. Since Apple provides half the company’s business, it would have a huge impact.

In fact, it’s been reported that Imagination has lost at least 70% of its market value since Apple’s decision was reported. Now it appears that Imagination is trying to find a buyer.  Indeed, there are even reports that Apple itself may attempt to pick up the pieces, although that would seem a curious move. It would mean that Apple reached its divorce decision as part of a scheme to reduce Imagination’s value and thus get a good price. But that’s not Apple’s way.

But don’t forget that Apple will be spending many millions of dollars to switch to its own silicon, so any savings would take a while to be achieved. It would be more about having greater control over of its hardware. That need for control is, of course, why some suggest the A-series CPUs are destined for Macs.

But they are actually there already, at least for the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. One of Apple’s own systems-on-a-chip is employed to power that feature, and it’s rumored other low-functions, such as Power Nap, will make the switch.

But Apple has already denied that there will be a Mac on ARM in our future, even though some continue to suggest it’s inevitable.

I briefly thought Apple might even want to use its own technology to power Mac GPUs. But that would have its own complications, since games and other apps are optimized to do their best on existing graphics hardware from Intel, AMD and NVIDIA. So, in effect, an Apple-built GPU might create extra complications.

Or maybe not. I’m not a graphics chip designer, nor do I play one on TV.

Now I suppose the folks at Imagination ought to feel betrayed by Apple, although the fear that they’d be ditched certainly loomed after those A-series CPUs were launched.

But if Apple can continue to expand the functionality of its chips with additional functions, other chip makers might be losing lots of business too before long. Apple is embroiled in a patent dispute with Qualcomm, which provides some of their baseband chips. These are the parts that allow your iPhone and certain iPads to connect to a cellular network. Apple also uses baseband chips from Intel, but may actually be slowing down the capabilities of both because of the limitations in the latter.

All right, this all may be getting more involved than I had hoped. Few who buy these gadgets really care about the manufacturers of the parts Apple uses, or the consequences of using those parts unless they create problems. So even if an iPhone’s broadband speeds could be a little better, they are surely fast enough as it is for most people.

So what if Apple took baseband components in-house too?

What all this in-house development does mean is that it allows Apple to further differentiate its hardware from the pack. Putting its own CPUs into iPhones and iPads results in products that are more difficult for other companies to compete with. The rest of the industry largely uses commodity hardware, although Samsung sometimes uses its own Exynos SoCs, which appear to deliver mediocre performance.

And even though Macs run Intel processors, and discrete GPUs from AMD and NVIDIA, the decision to pass off functions to A-series silicon can give Apple further control over innovative technology. It’s the sort of thing that’s bound to give other companies conniptions.

While Apple is often egged on by the media to buy this, that, or another company, such moves are done to expand the company’s own technology portfolio. Remember that Touch ID came through Apple’s purchase of AuthenTec, which means nobody else can use their fingerprint sensors. We all know about Siri’s origins, although some of that company’s former executives are working with Samsung on its nascent Bixby digital assistant. And, yes, I know that Bixby is just out of the starting gate, so it has a long ways to go.

Obviously, Samsung did that to follow Apple, but when Siri arrived — even though it was in beta and fairly buggy — you didn’t have to wait for a software update to use it. Regardless, Apple’s efforts to move more hardware components in-house will only continue.