Apple loses its Imagination, will build its own GPU

“Apple has asserted that it has been working on a separate, independent graphics design in order to control its products and will be reducing its future reliance on Imagination’s technology."

Apple, Imagination, iOS, Metal, iPhone, Apple Watch, Mac
Peter Sayer/IDG News Service

Imagination shares plunged 70 percent this morning after the chip designer announced that Apple is to stop using its technologies in new products in “15-months to two years.”

The whole widget

“Apple has asserted that it has been working on a separate, independent graphics design in order to control its products and will be reducing its future reliance on Imagination’s technology,” a statement from Imagination reads.

Imagination also says Apple will have a hard time developing its own graphics processor units without violating Imagination’s patents, IP, or information, so the two firms continue to discuss future licensing arrangements. Will litigation follow?

The announcement is also interesting as Imagination only recently announced Power VR Furian, its fastest mobile GPU design yet.

Has Apple declined to license this technology? This seems likely as it’s not set to hit mass market mainstream until 2018/19, after the Apple deal expires.

Apple in March 2016 confirmed it had engaged in discussion to buy Imagination. These talks didn’t come to anything, but several senior Imagination employees have joined Apple since that time, including Imagination Technology Chief Operating Officer, John Metcalfe, who is now a Senior Director at Apple.

He’s not alone

Since the PA Semi acquisition, Apple has been growing its strength in chip design. It’s a-series processors are the best performing mobile processors in the industry. Even Samsung’s latest high-end product is less powerful than Apple’s existing 7-series iPhones, according to some benchmarks.

It makes sense for Apple to demand the same innovation from its GPU technology and its chip brains trust clearly has some ideas.

In pursuit of those ideas Apple has been recruiting staff from Imagination for months. A quick glimpse at LinkedIn reveals multiple examples of key ex-Imagination engineering hires now at Apple.

Apple is also recruiting engineers with GPU experience to join its hardware division, mostly based in Central London.

‘Extreme secrecy’

There have been claims Apple has been developing its own graphics processors since before 2015 when a Fudzilla report claimed it to have been doing so “under extreme secrecy” for a “few years”.

“Rome hasn’t been built in a day and it sure takes at least a few years to create a fully functional mobile GPU. This is why Apple has been working under extreme secrecy for a few years, according to Fudzilla's Deep Throats in the graphics industry.”

However, an October 2016 ExtremeTech report suggested Apple’s work on developing its own GPU may already be fairly advanced, with elements on the iPhone 7 GPU obviously developed by Apple in-house.

Metal inside

Metal is the best available evidence of this focus. It is a hardware-accelerated graphics and compute application programming interface (API) that maximizes the graphics potential of Apple’s platforms. That Apple now wants to make Metal completely processor native by taking ownership of the entire processor design is typical of the “whole widget” strategy it approaches when designing new hardware.

Inflection point

This strategy has intensified since the company changed the smartphone industry with the release of the iPhone. It seems clear the company has learned that investing in the development of unique technologies imitative competitors cannot emulate is a better defence against their unwanted flattery than litigation.

Whatever device(s) the company intends twinning its own GPU and CPU designs within in future will be powerful and capable of real-time graphics performance exceeding that made available by competitors.

That’s a good place to be as AR, VR, AI and user interface design hit an inflection point. Everything from AR experiences to autonomous vehicles will demand best-in-class processor design and performance. Apple wants to make sure the chips that power its solutions in these fields are the best in the world.

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