Answering the 64-Bit Question

on June 18, 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.