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Future iPhones to wield OpenCL acceleration

Imagination Technologies has posted a series of job openings for OpenCL engineers, indicating that the open, general purpose GPU parallelism technology Apple spearheaded for use in Mac OS X Snow Leopard is destined to also play a significant role in boosting embedded graphics and video acceleration on the company's future handheld products.

Imagination's job postings include an OpenCL Compiler Senior Design Engineer, OpenCL Driver Design Engineer, and OpenCL Compiler Design Engineer. Each requests experience with "embedded real-time operating systems" as well as kernel and assembly language development skills, and indicate a focus on "software for current and next generation graphics hardware."

PowerVR and OpenCL

Imagination is the developer behind PowerVR mobile graphics and video processor cores, which are broadly used in millions of mobile phones and other devices from media players to TV set top boxes to car navigation systems. PowerVR graphics cores are also installed in everything from Apple's iPhone and iPod touch to Nokia's N95 and Internet Tablets, as well as other higher-end mobile phones from makers such as Motorola, Sony Ericsson, and Palm.

There are some mobile devices that don't use PowerVR cores; Sony uses a proprietary graphics processor in its PlayStation Portable (although the upcoming PSP2 is rumored to use a PowerVR design), while both the Nintendo DS and the Microsoft Zune lack a GPU core, simply relying on software graphics running on their main ARM CPU. Dedicated PowerVR cores built into an ARM or Intel Atom SoC or "System on a Chip" will not only provide improved graphics power for gaming, but also enable support for higher quality video acceleration.

Additionally, while PowerVR cores include support for Microsoft's proprietary DirectX graphics APIs, nearly all mobile devices have now standardized around OpenGL. Apple's strength in the iPod segment and its strong start with the iPhone are both helping build critical mass around OpenGL in the mobile development space. That will also lend support to the related OpenCL API as a general purpose computing environment on mobile devices, a potential that has until now largely remained only a matter of speculation.

OpenCL poised to go mobile

Imagination's interest in hiring OpenCL developers means the GPGPU (General-Purpose computation on GPUs) technology is already immediately relevant to mobile developers, as the company's PowerVR GPUs are currently used only in mobile devices, and the job postings make it clear that the OpenCL positions are related to embedded, mobile graphics. While the company has expressed interest in entering the laptop PC market, it faces foreboding, entrenched competition from GPU giants NVIDA and AMD's ATI.

NVIDIA and AMD have already jumped on the OpenCL bandwagon to support the open new API in conventional desktop PC GPGPU computing, but Imagination's active interest in hiring OpenCL engineers means that the GPGPU technology has a broader application range than many industry observers have suspected. The potential for OpenCL's parallel computing in mobile devices includes greater power efficiency and improvements in raw computing power across multiple cores rather than a reliance on a primary, hotter running, higher speed CPU.

Apple and Imagination

Apple recently stepped up to buy 8 million shares of the graphics technology company, and was revealed in an accompanying press release to be a licensee of Imagination's technology. That news was first revealed by AppleInsider as all but official months ago.

While Apple's relationship with Imagination was long shrouded in secrecy, the Mac maker had publicly revealed its plans to design custom chips for its iPod and iPhone lines via its acquisition of PA Semi, a fabless processor design firm. Imagination's PowerVR cores are the industry standard for mobile graphics, so there's no real surprise that Apple would license the technology for use in its upcoming SoC designs.

However, Imagination's push to hire OpenCL developers indicates something new: rather than simply adding standard graphics cores to standard ARM CPUs to create conventional SoC devices like those already used across the board in today's mobile phones, Apple clearly intends to rapidly accelerate the processing capabilities of its upcoming mobile devices using the same GPGPU parallel processing technology that it will bring to conventional desktop and laptop computers with Snow Leopard.

OpenCL's strategic wins for Apple

While Apple presented OpenCL to the Khronos Group to maintain as an open, royalty free industry standard, the company will continue to enjoy a first mover advantage in implementing OpenCL within Snow Leopard next year, as well as a lead in OpenCL mobile hardware as it begins production of its custom designed SoCs with new and perhaps multiple PowerVR graphics and video processing cores.

Apple's mobile OS used on the iPod touch and iPhone is also based directly upon its desktop Mac OS X kernel, operating system, and development environment, an advantage in software portability that is not similarly shared by its competitors, including Microsoft's Windows Vista and Windows Mobile, or by Nokia's Symbian, Nokia OS, and Linux products. Google's new Android mobile OS similarly shares less in common with desktop Linux platforms.

Additionally, OpenCL's similarities to the OpenGL APIs will help entrench both open standards in mobile development before Microsoft's DirectX has a chance to monopolize the market. That in turn will create a mobile bulwark which will likely help marginalize the dominance of DirectX in the broader computing landscape, just as the iPod pulled the wind from the sails of Microsoft's Windows Media DRM strategy. In the game console market, DirectX on the Xbox 360 faces Nintendo and Sony, both in the OpenGL camp. Mobile gaming is entirely based on OpenGL. On the PC desktop, the proprietary DirectX hegemony is facing erosion from increasing interest in cross platform support for Linux and Mac OS X, which can only be delivered via OpenGL.

By promoting OpenCL as an interoperable, open industry standard, Apple will level the playing field in the graphics arena, flattening Microsoft's monopoly position so that innovative companies can both contribute towards the state of the art and score touchdowns when they introduce superior products.