Apple chip roadmap hints A5 iPhone 5, A6 iPad 3

By Jonny Evans

Looking beyond WWDC to the future evolution of Apple [AAPL] and its iDevices, the A5 chip is faster than anything offered by the competition, according to Microprocessor Review -- but future development may put its smartphones and tablets on different paths. Intel wants a piece of Apple's growing mobile processor pie -- will a hybrid ARM/Intel MacBook follow?.

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These days Apple keeps changing its rules

"The A5 is Apple's first processor that jumps ahead of the competition, but this differentiation comes at a high cost. Apple's processor-design choices will affect the way it rolls out new products in 2011 and beyond," writes, Linley Gwennap, senior editor for Microprocessor Review.

Gwennap anticipates Apple may have to think different in future. That's because Apple should match industry trends in order to create a quad-core A6 processor next year, but this may be too hot to run inside an iPhone. The analyst takes this information to suggest Apple may field an A6 inside the iPad 3, and a new version earlier processor inside the iPhone.

Perhaps this is another contributing factor to Apple’s seemingly delayed introduction of the next-generation iPhone? Perhaps the scenario is one in which the iPhone 4S uses an upgraded A4 processor while an A5-powered iPhone becomes scheduled for 2012, when an A6 iPad 3 also appears. This would significantly diversify the product range.

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Already, when it comes to mobile performance, the A5 is a tiger -- faster for 3D performance than Nvidia's flagship Tegra 2. This is because it carries a  31-square-millimeter graphics processing unit -- that GPU alone is as large as the entire surface area of the Tegra 2.

What's the secret?

There's also a touch of mystery about Apple's A5 design: 33 square millimeters of the chip is extra circuitry that can't be accounted for. We don't know what it does: it isn't for the processor, it isn't for the graphics processor, audio, Wi-Fi -- but at that size (bigger than a Tegra 2 chip) it has to be busy doing something.

Processor manufacturing is currently conducted by Samsung. But, with Apple and Samsung's mobile division involved in an increasingly bitter courtroom dispute, it seems unlikely this relationship will continue forever. This must be why Apple is working with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing to bring that firm online as processor maker.

There's another option too, and highly-placed executives at that firm seem willing to dance with Apple. Apple "helps shape" Intel's road map, according to Intel SVP Tom Kilroy. And Intel CEO, Paul Otellini has observed that money from mobile processor design is "mostly going to the foundry guys".

Apple + Intel - Samsung =?

Intel likes to follow the money. No surprise then that Piper Jaffray analyst, Gus Richard, believes Intel's chasing Apple's ARM-based A-series chip fabrication business. "Based on a number of inputs, we believe Intel is also vying for Apple's foundry business,'' he told clients last month.

Pointing to the strategic and competitive sense such moves could make to Apple and Intel, Richard writes, "Intel's manufacturing lead gives Apple an additional competitive advantage in these markets and distances it from Asian competitors that are knocking off its products. Furthermore, it would also serve to weaken Samsung who is a significant competitive threat to both companies.''

Samsung has made significant investments in Apple chip production, the analysts notes, including building a plant in Austin Texas to support its foundry business, of which Apple is "its largest customer".

The notion that Intel may begin manufacturing ARM-based processors seems highly counter-intuitive...but the foundry market is set to be worth in excess of $50 billion by 2015, says Microprocessor Review.

"To unlock the value of its industry-leading IC-manufacturing technology and reignite growth, Intel should spin off its fabs into a separate company with free rein to target the growing foundry market, which should exceed $50 billion by 2015," the magazine said this month.

An ARM MacBook with Intel inside? Preposterous...

A move to Intel raises another popular question. In the event Intel where to begin building customized ARM processors for Apple, what chance of a dual-processor ARM/Intel MacBook as a future device? After all, Apple is already understood to be testing an ARM-powered MacBook in its labs, and a dual iOS/OS X Mac has been discussed in the past...

Two years ago ARM CEO Warren East said Dell and others were building hybrid PCs equipped with two modes: a low power mobile phone-type mode, and a regular PC mode. While the iPad offers this, Lion OS shows that Apple is working to unify its operating systems.

Ultimately the vision must be one in which whichever device you use offered the same basic experience through similar user interfaces -- you'd have a similar time using a tablet, mobile phone, computer, television, even your dishwasher. After all, we're looking at the evolution of smart, connected devices, as Wi-Fi gets everywhere.

What makes speculation such as this more interesting is the existence of that large area of unexplained space on the A5 processor. What is that 33 square millimeters of extra circuitry doing? Tell me, if you please, in comments below.

I'd also very much like to invite you to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when I post new reports here first on Computerworld.  

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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