12 September 2013

The Most Forward Thinking Apple Yet

What the 64-bit capable iOS 7 and the M7 chip really mean

Around this time a year ago, Tim Cook wrote a letter to Apple's customers apologizing for the Maps debacle. Exactly around a month later, Apple announced a major executive reshuffle. Forstall resigned(sic). Jony Ive took charge of Human Interface in addition to Industrial Design. A new Technologies group was created, led by Bob Mansfield, who returned from retirement. Federighi and Cue took over additional responsibilites as well. John Browett, a hiring choice personally made by Tim Cook, was made to leave Apple as well.

Since then, Apple stock has dropped nearly 30%.

In many ways, WWDC, and more so, the iPhone 5C and 5S represent (and had to represent) Apple's reply to the naysayers. However, I think there was more to the announcements than what met the eye.

One of the most peculiar announcements yesterday was that iOS 7 was now 64-bit. Apple seems to have left out that announcement at WWDC, possibly to avoid revealing that the A7 chip(and hence the next iPhone) would be 64-bit capable. Many seem to have assumed that this is just Apple preparing for the eventual transition. I think there's more to it than that.

Apple made a similar full-scale transition to 64-bit on the Mac with Snow Leopard in 2009. At the time, Macs were already at the point of reaching 4GB and above memory capacities. This isn't the case with the 5S today, or even for the majority of Android phones.

I don't believe Apple added 64-bit support to iOS 7 and all their apps just to prepare for an eventual transition to 4GB+ memory capacities in future iPhones. I think this was to do with something more impending. Do we know any product category that Apple would be interested in, that would require the use of both iOS and an A-series chip that is 64-bit capable in order to address 4GB+ memory?

Apple TV (the one that is yet to come, not the one that exists).

Just a few days prior to WWDC this summer, the Xbox One was annnounced with 8GB memory. The 360 had 512 MB of memory. Earlier in January this year, the PS4 was announced with 8GB of memory. The PS3 had 256MB of system memory.

If Apple were to release a competing living room solution now, as Steve Jobs claimed they had figured out, it would definitely have to have around 8GB of memory (if they were interested in addressing big screen console gaming seriously). It would also likely be iOS, and not OS X, that would be needed. I think that is why Apple just announced full-scale hardware and software 64-bit support, not because phones will eventually have 4GB of memory sometime in the future.

The second bit of credence for this theory comes from the new Game Controller Framework that was announced for iOS 7 and OS X 10.9. This seems to address the user control issues with big-screen console gaming, while the 64-bit hypothesis above ensures compute and graphics capability for larger screens.

The other interesting thing to come out of the recent event was the M7 coprocessor, that focusses on 'motion'. This isn't the first time a mobile phone has had a coprocessor. The Moto X has two - a natural language processor and a contextual awareness processor. But neither of them are so singularly focussed on fitness as the M7 chip. The new CoreMotion Framework for iOS 7 adds a step counter and a motion activity detector (stationary, walking, running, vehicle or unknown). We know that Apple has been hiring experts in noninvasive blood component measurements. We know they have a patent on a wrist watch. The iWatch must not be far away.

My guess is that the iWatch will not be a iPod Shuffle or Nano like device in terms of an embedded operating system. It will be based on iOS, possibly to allow for apps in the future.

As for the Moto X's natural language coprocessor chip - I expect Apple will soon have an S7 or S8. Remember, margins matter for Apple, so an M7 is all we get for now. It's also more likely that Apple will reserve such a chip to be introduced with either iWatch or the new Apple TV.

Jony Ive's mark can be seen all over the 5S and the 5C. Colors were an Ive trademark, all the way from the original iMac G3 to the iPods and now, to the iPhone. But the more subtle impact is within iOS 7.

iOS was originally designed for an era without a Retina display. It needed heavy skeuomorphism, relatively thick fonts and glossy UI elements, to distinguish itself elegantly in an era where pixels were large and visible. As the entire product lineup shifted to Retina displays, the design attained the potential of being refined to a more careful use of space. Ive and his team have done this for the internals of iOS devices for long. Now it was about the user interface.

The internals have Mansfield written all over them. Apple pulled off a 64-bit transition in the A7 chip alongside a semiconductor technology upgrade beyond 32nm and developed the M7 coprocessor. I also suspect another S7/S8 for voice is in the works. Apple could have followed Samsung in licensing from ARM their big.LITTLE architecuture to achieve similar goals as the M7 coprocessor, but they clearly chose a different route. Mansfield had a role to play in such major shifts for Apple, not just another incremental A-series chip upgrade.

Tim Cook and his executive team is out to prove that this Apple is the most forward-thinking yet.

Also read why Apple may go for a cheap iOS device instead of a cheap iPhone.