Why Apple’s A Series Processors are Central to Their Future

on November 18, 2015

Anyone who has had a chance to use the iPad Pro realizes very quickly that this is one really fast tablet. Apple’s A9 processor is what they calla a “desktop class processor” and that sure seems to be the case.

The folks at ArsTechnica did an excellent piece using data from GeekBench and GFX Bench to show speed comparison of Apple processors used in past iPads and iPhones. They showed just how far Apple has come with this chip. I highly recommend you check the piece out to get a deeper look at these speed comparisons.

Apple’s move to create faster and more powerful processors of their own is a really big deal. In fact, we have been warning our PC and Semiconductor customers for years Apple clearly has a plan to make their A Series processor central to their future and use it to create a whole host of new products that would help them gain even more control their destiny. At the moment, Apple is highly reliant on Intel for processors they use in their Mac line. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I see the Mac continuing to be Apple’s flagship PC product and favored by a traditional PC crowd for years to come. However, I also think that, over time, the Mac crowd will shrink and Apple will be OK with this as it transitions over to more iOS devices that could supplant the Mac in many use cases.

Over the years, Apple has hired hundreds of semiconductor engineers to work on their chip designs and, under the late Steve Jobs’ guidance, crafted what one could call at least a 15-year plan to make the A series chips equal to or more powerful than the Intel processors they use today. I don’t think Apple has any plans to put their A series chips in a Mac soon. I’m not sure that, in the broad scope of their long term strategy, this makes sense. The reason I think a Mac could keep using an Intel chip for some time is I believe Apple has no interest in merging the two operating systems. In fact just last week, Tim Cook told the Irish Independent newspaper “Apple would not make a “converged” Mac and iPad”:

We feel strongly that customers are not really looking for a converged Mac and iPad,” said Cook. “Because what that would wind up doing, or what we’re worried would happen, is that neither experience would be as good as the customer wants. So we want to make the best tablet in the world and the best Mac in the world. And putting those two together would not achieve either. You’d begin to compromise in different ways.

It would be important to note here I believe this also represents a demarcation line between user interfaces. I sense Apple wholeheartedly believes the Mac’s UI should be tied to a keyboard and trackpad and will not put a touch screen in a Mac. On the other hand, iOS was built specifically for touch as the primary UI and, as with the iPad Pro, makes a keyboard just an accessory, albeit an important one for when the iPad Pro is needed for more keyboard intensive tasks such as writing documents, answering email or creating very long text messages.

This transition to making their A Series processors, specifically designed to work with iOS, is highly strategic and aimed at a younger generation of users who have been using iOS on their smartphones and tablets since they were young and consider this their OS of choice. Apple knows full well these younger users are the future workers in business and is working hard to create the kind of tools that can follow them into the business world when they enter it over the next 3-10 years. The iPad Pro is the first with others to follow (including, I believe, an iOS-based clamshell). This would give those workers another option for use in a business setting sometime in the near future.

But advancing the power and features of their A9 architecture and future processors goes well beyond their current device offerings. Rumors that Apple is working on a car is intriguing and, if true, it would need a powerful set of processors to handle the entertainment and navigations systems as well as any crash avoidance functions a smart car needs. I also see Apple eventually creating products for VR, AR, more advanced home automation, smarter TVs and perhaps even specialized gaming systems that would work with a future Apple TV system.

Although they could use chips from other vendors, advancing their own semiconductor architecture would give them more control of their designs and ecosystems. While we can’t think of Apple being a semiconductor company like Intel and Qualcomm, this division inside Apple has the same goals and objectives a mainstream semiconductor company has. However, these current and future processors are designed for use in custom Apple products and by using their own processors they can really control their destiny.

Apple’s semiconductor division needs to be seen as one of Apple’s greatest assets whose charter is to give Apple the processor power they need to continue to be the innovative and tech trendsetting company it is today. Indeed, the chip designers and engineers are central to Apple’s future and will only become more important to Apple products over time.