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Is Apple ARM's secret licensee?

Posted: 04 Aug 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ARM license? architecture license? processor core?

While ARM Holdings plc CEO Warren East has declined to name the company that has taken a multiyear architecture license for its current and future technologies, he gave enough clues while speaking to financial analysts, which clearly showed that Apple Inc. is a contender.

I'll throw down some circumstantial evidence but for me processor design guru Dan Dobberpuhl is the key.

Whoever the licensee should prove to be, the company signed the far-reaching license during Q2, and is a leading OEM handset maker that wants to develop its road map for mobile computing devices. It is also seems to be handset maker that wants to keep control of its handset design, including the components within it. Sound like anyone familiar?

The Apple iPhone is thought to have as many as five ARM processor cores inside it, but those processor cores are contained in multiple chips from several different chip vendors. Wouldn't that be perfect for rationalizing into a multicore ARM architecture, if Apple chose to go down that route?

The last time an ARM executive boasted to me about signing a license deal for technology that the company had not even invented yet, was back in the late 1990s. The executive concerned had just returned from negotiating the terms of an architectural license with Intel Corp., which had to be recast after Intel inherited the StrongARM processor along with part of computer maker Digital Equipment Corp.

PA Semi link
And who was the engineer that had led the Digital Equipment team that developed StrongARM under an architectural license? It was Dan Dobberpuhl, subsequently CEO of Palo Alto Semiconductor Inc. With the recent acquisition of P.A. Semi by Apple, Dobberpuhl has become an Apple employee. And perhaps now, with ARM's disclosure, we are beginning to see why Apple was interested in Dobberpuhl and his capable design team.

The U.S. Department of Defense is reviewing Apple's acquisition of P.A. Semi because the acquisition put into jeopardy the future of an embedded PowerPC processor that reportedly has been designed into a wide variety of military programs. But assuming those objections can be squared away Apple's thinking would be clear.

That is: buy a leading design team that has proved they can increase processor performance while reducing power and get their chips right first time and out on time. And then buy them an ARM architectural license for them to play with. Stir the pot, bring to the boil and simmer for 18 months to two years and voila.

And don't forget that Apple was an original part-owner of Advanced RISC Machines Ltd at its formation in 1990. Advanced RISC Machines was the forerunner of ARM Holdings plc. Apple has always liked the quirky British.

- Peter Clarke
EE Times Europe

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