At ARM’s Length

When Steve Jobs introduced the Apple TV during the keynote, he mentioned that it was powered by an Intel CPU, and they popped up a slide with an Intel logo. But what Intel processor? Well, no one seems to be saying. The Apple TV tech specs page says “Intel processor” and no more. (My guess is that it’s some sort of x86 CPU, and that the guts of an Apple TV pretty much resemble a stripped-down Mac Mini.)

But that’s an avalanche of information compared to what Apple has announced regarding the iPhone’s CPU, which is nada. The lack of an Intel shout-out or logo during the keynote led me to believe it was “not Intel”, and Intel itself has officially confirmed that they are not involved with the iPhone.

Sources familiar with the matter (as they say) hinted to me that the iPhone is powered by an ARM processor. This in itself is intriguing, as it is an entirely new chip architecture that Apple’s operating system1 is now apparently targeting.2

Also interesting is the fact that Apple isn’t publicly admitting that they’re using ARM chips. One reason, perhaps, might be that Apple doesn’t want to draw attention to the fact that they once owned a significant stake in ARM and sold it all at the end of the ’90s. (Credit to Gus Mueller for suggesting this theory during dinner last night.)

Apple owned a big chunk of ARM because ARM was the company that supplied processors for the Newton; they dumped it, perhaps, not just for profit but because they didn’t see the need to maintain a stake in a company that produced processors that were useful for things like portable touch-screen communication devices. Whoops.

Another theory is that perhaps Apple hasn’t yet decided on exactly which processor to use in the actual production units of the iPhone. June is still pretty far away. (Update: Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting they haven’t decided on the basic processor architecture at this point; I’m saying maybe it’s possible they haven’t decided, say, which ARM processor.)

And the (admittedly outlandish) long shot? What if it’s not an ARM, but a PowerPC, and in which case Apple doesn’t want to mention it because they don’t want any sort of confusion regarding the still dripping-wet switch to Intel of the entire Mac line-up?

Update: This job listing from Apple for an iPhone software engineer hints strongly that it’s an ARM processor.

  1. That is to say the core operating system at the core of Mac OS X, the computer OS used in Macs, and “OS X”, the embedded OS on the iPhone. More on this soon in a separate fireball, but do not be confused: Mac OS X and OS X are not the same thing, although they are most certainly siblings. The days of lazily referring to “Mac OS X” as “OS X” are now over. ↩︎

  2. The lesson Adobe seems to have taken from Apple’s Intel switch is that instead of assuming a PowerPC architecture, they can assume an x86 architecture. The lesson most other Mac developers seem to have taken is to stop making assumptions about the underlying processor architecture. Their “Intel-only” Mac software may well bite them on the ass someday in the future. ↩︎