Answering the 64-Bit Question

by Ben Bajarin   |   June 18th, 2014

When Apple announced their latest processor architecture for the A7 was 64-bit based instead of 32-bit, they created the media misunderstanding of the century. Not only were a great many of the media misinterpreting the significance of the new architecture but many industry executives did as well, with some calling it just a marketing ploy. How wrong so many were.

Many good articles came out attempting to explain and educate interested readers. Still, many missed the single biggest feature of the iPhone that required it to be based on a 64-bit processor — encryption. I have had many long conversations with chipset architects since then and repeatedly heard encryption is THE use case that will see the most performance benefits from a 64-bit architecture. Which means, it is likely Touch ID is simply not possible, at least in Apple’s deployment, on a 32-bit architecture. This could also explain why so many competing attempts at a fingerprint solution are terrible compared to Apple’s Touch ID.

Playing Catch Up

Apple’s competition is left playing catch up. This is one of the key things I am looking for Google to address next week at Google I/O. As I sit attentively in the audience, I anticipate they will answer the 64-bit question. This is essential for Google, not just because 64-bit mobile architectures are the new basis of competition but because these architectures will usher in the new mobile era. One based around a new ecosystem of security and privacy through hardware encryption.

All the leading chipset providers have announced 64-bit processors at some point in the future. What we still need is Android to support and incorporate key features that will take advantage of 64-bit.

I’d like to take a minute to preempt a common attack of a 64-bit Android supported OS. Many will immediately call out that, even if Android goes to 64-bit, most developers will not take advantage of it in any meaningful way. This is likely true but it was true of iOS as well. This also misses the point. ARM’s V8 instruction set is, at a foundational level, more efficient than the previous V7. Which means even 32-bit applications will see a significant performance benefit in their existing form. So, while the true benefit will come when developers start to leverage 64-bit architectures with 64-bit apps, the point remains — existing apps will see a benefit in efficiency and performance as well.

24 Month Lead

However, even if Google comes out and nails every point effectively around 64-bit, not just saying Android supports 64-bit but also the specifics of encryption, security, third party biometrics sensors, and all the other key features, I believe Apple still has a 24 month lead on the competition in these areas. Apple has just started scratching the surface with their developers of the power of the A7 being 64-bit nearly 10 months after announcing it. Apple is in a unique position because they are integrated and control more elements of the stack. It will take developers time and we are likely still not going to see the A7 fully utilized in graphics, security, identity, and more until the end of the year. Which means Apple itself took a year to get their own controlled ecosystem on board with 64-bit. Imagine how long it will take Google’s partner ecosystem? If Android’s history is our guide then it may be a while.

That is why I’m sticking with my 24 month lead projecting, which may very well be conservative.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Full Bio
  • Nevermark

    Apple’s new Metal interface for GPUs and Swift languages are more steps ahead. Apple owns the whole stack: from processor instruction set, arrangements of CPU and GPU cores, hardware programming interfaces, OS, software libraries, memory and power efficiency strategies that require hardware and software coordination, all the way up to high-level languages, such as Objective-C and Swift.

    Apple has picked up steam in the last year or so and is increasing their lead in giving developers the easiest most efficient platform to develop on.

    Unlike Android, their platform is pan-phone, tablet, laptop and desktop. Unlike Android they smoothly update customers old devices so that developer can safely focus on the latest version.

    This is not just bad news for Android, but also for Microsoft. If Apple scoops up just another 10% off the top of laptop sales Microsoft and its OEMs are going to lose significant profits. A super light lower tier ARM OS X laptop could do some serious damage to both Microsoft and Intel’s profit margins.

  • Rene Stein

    Has TouchID been hacked yet? There was a bounty out for it. I know it has been spoofed (not the same). But has anybody been able to gain access to the fingerprint data that is stored on the phone? I suppose, they can’t just access the data either, they have to access the data and have the data be useful in some way.

    • pk_de_cville

      I read a lot of posts and, as yet, there are no claims or rumors of claims that TouchID has been hacked.

      In fact, we are having police commissioners in NY and SF standing up and announcing 25%+ decreases in iPhone thefts vs 30% increases in SamGone thefts. Ah, the irony, after shipping its flawed TouchID_FastCopy ™ module.

  • Space Gorilla

    I think you’re absolutely correct about how important privacy and security are going to be. It will be interesting to see how Google handles this, since they make money by selling ads, Google’s profit motive is not strongly aligned with the privacy/security of the end user/consumer.

    • jamesdbailey

      I think you underestimate the value for Google to insure that they are the privacy gatekeepers. They have an interest in protecting users from being comprised by outside attackers. None of this is to say that Google will protect users’ privacy from Google themselves.

      • Space Gorilla

        You’re right that Google has some interest, but consumers are not Google’s customers. Advertisers are Google’s customers. Add to that the more open and fragmented nature of Android and I think Google will have a fairly tough time matching Apple in this arena. I guess we’ll see what comes out of the I/O conference near the end of June.

      • Sammy

        I agree with most of what you say, but Google just recently started encrypting data from data center to data center after the Snowden leaks.

        For those paying attention, PBS Frontline aired an episode about NSA Internet tapping now known as “Prism” in fall 2010. That episode included info about the secret rooms in the AT&T/Verizon? exchange in LA.

        Doesn’t any one at Google watch PBS or were they compliant with the NSA until it became public?

        I understand your point though

  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/115605168398121887465/about Anzhel Bozhinov

    if Android goes to 64-bit, most developers will not take advantage of it in any meaningful way

    Android has managed, virtualized runtime. So, if Google makes ARMv8-compatible Dalvik/ART, all Java-apps will automatically use advanced instructions without additional work. Only NDK-developers must make special optimizations for ARMv8. On iOS all developers must make optimizations.

    • Sammy

      As we read last Fall, many iOS developers (not of games) were able to optimized and recompile their app in one day. So it wasn’t a big deal. Others decided to take time to match their app to the new iOS 7 elements.

      As consumers, we all win with competition.

  • obarthelemy

    Has 64 bit made any difference at all ? I get that going forward it has some nice extra features and oomph, byt what has 64-bitness enabled over the last few months that isn’t also available on 32-bit phones, whether iOS or Andoird ?

    • Mark Jones

      Did you actually read the piece? The wording of your response lead many to think you’re just a heavily-biased troll.

      But giving you the benefit of the doubt, as Ben said, one area is encryption. One obvious benefit right now that is noticeable to millions of iPhone 5S users is the incredible speed and accuracy of the TouchID response. There is no 32-bit phone with anything like it. This core encryption is critical to the security and privacy demanded by users for health, home, and payments, among other things.

      • obarthelemy

        Do you have any reviews to support your assertion ? All the ones I’ve seen say touch ID works the same on all phones…

        • Mark Jones

          http://www.youtube (dot) com/watch?v=R3C6OW8eMGk
          Why do you think you need to swipe exactly so on a vertical, narrow strip on the GS5 (as repeated in multiple otherwise positive GS5 reviews, such as at Anandtech, CNET, Engadget ), but can put your finger in any orientation on the 5S and have it unlock immediately?

          Anandtech: http://www.anandtech (dot) com/show/7903/samsung-galaxy-s-5-review/4
          “… the fingerprint scanner requires straight swipes with very little diagonal deviation. The scanner is also quite sensitive to swiping either too slow/fast or swiping at an inconsistent rate, and will often fail if the user is not consistent in swiping from enrollment to unlock. Enrolling the finger at multiple angles does help a bit with the issue, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the experience.”

          CNET: http://www.cnet (dot) com/how-to/a-deep-dive-into-the-galaxy-s5s-snappy-fingerprint-scanner/
          “The swiping area seems like it’s pretty limited to a narrow, vertical strip. That means your finger has to be more or less vertical to succeed, which also means that you will probably need to hold the Galaxy S5 with one hand while unlocking it with the other. I chose my index finger. Scanning for prints worked pretty well, but I did experience some misfires if my finger wasn’t correctly aligned or if I moved too quickly.”

          Engadget: http://www.engadget (dot) com/2014/04/11/samsung-galaxy-s5-review
          “Over the course of several days, I made dozens of attempts with each finger and it only recognized me on the first try about half the time — and that’s a generous estimate. More often than not, I had to swipe my finger two or three times before it let me in; typing in a PIN code would’ve been more efficient. Worse, there were other times when the scanner wouldn’t recognize me at all, even as I adjusted my swipe speed, angle and finger pressure. And even when it works, there’s a small delay after you swipe before the phone accepts your print.

          As for one-handed use, don’t even bother. It’s technically possible, but the odds of success are so low I have a better chance of seeing Narnia each time I open my closet. Normally, I hold the phone in my left hand and try to swipe the sensor with my left thumb; however, my thumb is at such an angle that the sensor simply can’t recognize it. Sometimes it’ll work if I push the phone up a little higher and try to position the thumb at a more shallow angle, but even then, it takes multiple attempts, and it’s so off-balance that I’ve come close to dropping the device several times. Apple’s sensor, on the other hand, has no problem picking up my fingerprint from any angle.”

    • Glaurung-Quena

      Sigh. Ben addressed this in the article, but it seems he did so too indirectly for you.

      Apple’s upgrade of their CPU architecture from ARMv7 to ARMv8 is like unto the upgrade in desktops from Pentium D to Core 2. Going from 32 to 64 bits is just an easily marketed part of it. Not only is the new CPU architecture much faster, it also includes numerous new features that are not present at all in the earlier incarnation, new features that enable software written for it to do things that were uselessly slow or impossible on the previous generation of hardware.

      • obarthelemy

        I get the “faster” part, and the “some instruction set extensions” part. Pretty similar to the x86+Windows situation really… and years after that one, the only difference is still “more usable RAM”, and that’s it, for 99.9% of users

    • Sammy

      I haven’t kept up with all the tech specs with android phones, but how many dual-core ARM Android phones can capture 120 fps video at 720p?

      Why, in many synthetic benchmarks, does the dual-core A7 outperform 8 core 32-bit chip big.LITTLE?

      I guess you didn’t read the part of the article about encryption?

  • obarthelemy

    Also, sensors have nothing to do with 64 bit. The moto X has a gaggle of extra sensors, for example.

    • Mark Jones

      Sensors collect lots of raw data, which needs to be processed into usable, relevant information. Processing can be enhanced by 64-bit, both in speed and quality, depending on the data/information.

  • obarthelemy
    • Mark Jones

      I hope you’re not implying that Ben doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

  • Sammy

    Hey Ben,

    Has Samsung publicly responded about how they are encrypting fingerprints? I know Senator Al Frankin asked.

    Is Samsung using something like Apple’s “secure enclave” or haven’t they responded yet?

  • stefnagel

    Always a good question: How will Apple gain a year or two? Chips. Sapphire? Camera? Cloud? Privacy? Security? Crypto? What? Just used Passport boarding pass. Terrific.

    • qka

      I thought “small” knives were now permitted.

      Me, I don’t fly. Hassling with Theatrical Security and all the other downgrades in service make driving a better option for me.

  • Chris Marriott

    Apple being the first to 64-bit is only the beginning of a trend. Apple’s walled garden has grown into a rainforest where scale allows them to not just compete, but beat the mainstream market at their own game. When a closed system becomes so large, it takes on the characteristics of an open one. Apple can invest in R&D to put it ahead of the rest of the market because it has enough paying customers to make it worth their while. With the scale Apple now has, approaching 1 billion users, it can outpace the rest of the market not just with design, but with raw performance and cost.

    Here’s an article I just wrote on this topic: http://halifaxbloggers.ca/straighttech/2014/06/a-rainforest-posing-as-a-walled-garden/