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Major architectural changes suggested by iPhone 2,1

Various clues on the next version of the iPhone are being collected that point to a major architectural overhaul that could bring dramatically improved graphics performance to Apple's popular smartphone.

Recently, the new hardware identity string "iPhone 2,1" began turning up within the logs of an iPhone software analytics tool as well as the recent iPhone 2.1.1 firmware. The label identifies a new hardware version that hasn't yet shipped.

A blog posting published by Pinch Media reported that the company's Pinch Analytics software detected some "iPhone 2,1" devices as early as the first part of October 2008. The units continued to appear in its logs sporadically until mid-December when the sighting began to accelerate. Geolocation tracking shows the devices are "almost exclusively located" in the south San Francisco Bay Area where Apple is located, and the company says the units report making connections both over WiFi and AT&T's cellular network.

Pinch Media sells services to iPhone app developers and maintains a set of free analytics tools that report activity from phone units running the apps of participating software makers. Their services do not detect display resolution or any other details. The new hardware label is unlikely to identify a new product category such as a tablet however, as Apple typically changes its internal string name entirely when creating a different product.

Apple's String Identifiers

The original iPhone was internally referenced as "iPhone 1,1" while last year's iPhone 3G identified itself as being "iPhone 1,2." While the latest iPhone version sported major new features including 3G and GPS, more RAM, as well as an entirely new case design, it did not use a significantly different processor and chipset architecture.

Apple's internal naming conventions for Mac desktops, notebooks, and Apple TV follows a similar numbering system, indicating a major revision number when the hardware architecture is updated to use a new processor or system chipset, but only incrementing the minor revision number when a new model is merely an update of the same basic design.

For example, Apple's MacBook Pro notebooks were assigned a major revision number (such as "MacBookPro4,1" to "MacBookPro5,1") with the change to a new processor architecture (Core Duo to Core 2 Duo), an increase in processor speed associated with a new chip family (Merom to Perym), or a complete change in the design of similar magnitude.

What's next for IPhone?

While it should come as no surprise that Apple would be working on a new iPhone, the new version number appears to signal a major architectural overhaul for Apple's mobile smartphone that is more significant than last year's iPhone 3G. This could include the use of customized "System on a Chip" components developed by Apple, using ARM processor cores and incorporating new PowerVR video and graphics processing core designs developed by Imagination Technologies.

Last December, Apple was officially cited as a licensee of Imagination Technologies' latest PowerVR mobile graphics technology, which would enable the company to develop state-of-the-art custom silicon for future iPhone and iPods at its recently acquired PA Semi fabless chip design lab.

Creating its own custom parts would enable the company to differentiate its mobile hardware further, while also leveraging software technologies such as Grand Central and OpenCL to accelerate media processing using hardware specifically optimized for parallel, multicore execution.

While initially developed for Mac OS X Snow Leopard, OpenCL on mobile devices could enable a new range of applications that demand high processing performance, from voice recognition to video processing. Highly efficient rendering would also help Apple to push ahead its efforts to enter the mobile handheld gaming arena with both the iPhone and iPod touch.