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Wednesday, September 30, 2009, 01:00 pm PT (04:00 pm ET)

Why Apple is betting on Light Peak with Intel: a love story

Despite Apple's investments in developing its own custom ARM microchips in place of using Intel's Atom mobile processors, the company has reached out to Intel as a partner to drive the adoption of the new Light Peak specification for optical cabling. A look at Apple's historical use of ports explains why it is doing this.

Apple and Intel rarely crossed paths in their early days. In the 80s, Apple used chips from MOS and Motorola while Intel powered the IBM PC juggernaut. In the 90s, Apple worked with Acorn to deliver mobile ARM processors for its Newton Message Pad, and then with IBM and Motorola on Power PC, a modern new architecture aimed squarely at replacing the Intel x86 PC.

Apart from the secretive Star Trek Project, a brief collaboration exploring the idea of porting the classic Mac OS to Intel in 1992-1993, Apple rarely ever even caught Intel's eye. Then suddenly things changed.

In the late 90s, Intel failed miserably in trying to get its new 64-bit Itanium off the ground, only to run into a dead end with its Pentium 4, which ran blazing hot but only delivered lukewarm performance. Meanwhile, PowerPC was largely only finding real success in embedded applications, leaving Apple ignored by its increasingly disinterested chip fab partners.

Apple wanted a strong provider ready to flex some muscles on its behalf, and Intel desired a sexy darling of industry it could parade into market. Thanks to the technology it had acquired from NeXT in 1997, Apple could now run its Mac OS platform on virtually any chip architecture and still support existing third party apps with relatively minimal changes. Apple and Intel were ready to look at each other in a whole new light.

Apple chips and Intel


Is this thing still on?

To the casual observer, Apple's sudden romance with Intel in 2005 (and the resulting shotgun wedding of Mac OS X with Intel's x86 Core processors in the transition that began in 2006) has since lost some of its initial warmth. Outside of its Intel-based Macs and Apple TV, Apple has retained the use of ARM processors in its iPod, iPhone and AirPort base station product families. This has been bad news for Intel's low power, x86-compatible Atom chips, which the company hoped Apple would grow to love in place of ARM.

Sources familiar with Apple's plans say the company decided against Atom in favor of continued use of ARM processors in its mobile devices due to the better power management and maturity of the ARM architecture compared to Intel's fledgeling Atom chips. But rather than waiting around for Atom to catch up with ARM, Apple has invested deeply in building up an ARM's race to power its future hardware.

In April of 2008 Apple acquired fabless chip designer PA Semi, with the expressed intention to develop new mobile chips for use in the iPhone and iPod line. That purchase brought a highly esteemed crew of veteran chip designers under Apple's wing, including PA Semi founder Dan Dobberpuhl, who developed DEC's trailblazing Alpha followed by its highly efficient StrongARM mobile processors.

Somewhat ironically, Intel had acquired StrongARM from DEC in 1998, rebranded it as Xscale, and invested fantastic sums of money into it, only to then sell the chip division at a massive loss to Marvell in late 2006, right before Apple signaled its intention to dive into smartphones and other sophisticated mobile devices like the iPod touch. (Incidentally, Apple had canceled its StrongARM-based Newton handhelds in 1998 just as Intel jumped into the mobile chip business).

Intel, having rid itself of its poorly-performing mobile chip business that has licensed technology from ARM, instead focused on converting its x86 processor family for use in mobile applications in a project that resulted in Atom. Those chips weren't anywhere near ready for the iPhone, so Apple continued along its ARM-centric roadmap it had been on since the original iPod in 2001.

Apple plays the field

On the heels of its 2008 PA Semi acquisition, Apple also fleshed out other new ARM-related deals. Throughout 2008, AppleInsider reported and then confirmed that Apple was the 'mysterious licensee' involved in quietly lining up broad rights to use Imagination Technologies's PowerVR mobile graphics technology, the popular GPU complement to ARM CPU cores in "System on a Chip" processors designed for for mobile devices.

Apple has also hired a variety of other chip gurus, including a key developer of IBM's POWER architecture, Mark Papermaster, last fall; Bob Drebin, who formerly served as chief technology officer of AMD's graphics products group; and earlier this spring, Raja Koduri, who initially replaced Drebin's post at AMD before following him to join Apple.

It would appear that Apple is asserting its independence from Intel, a reversal of Apple's 2005 decision to liquidate its in-house VLSI engineering talent in favor of delegating all of its chipset design work to Intel. In addition to its own in-house work aimed at mobile CPUs, Apple also forged a partnership with NVIDIA last fall to migrate its Macs from Intel's chipsets to NVIDIA's 9400M integrated chipset with advanced graphics, a choice that helped inflame tensions between Intel and NVIDIA over the pairing of NVIDIA's chipsets with future generations of Intel's CPUs.

At the same time, shortly after the PA Semi purchase was announced, Steve Jobs told the Wall Street Journal "We have a great partnership with Intel. We expect that to continue forever," and added, "We’re very happy with Intel."

On page 2 of 3: Intel's fatal attraction.