The big difference between the iPhone launch product and the new 3GS model is all-around speed. Not much else has changed, except the buyer gets more for less. More applications and firmware that need speed like Safari and MMS (multi-media messaging service) support. MMS, for both CDMA and GSM, allows consumers to send images, audio, and video. CDMA owns the market share in North America and GSM leads in the European Union.
The prime technology that drives speed is the central processing unit. The manufacturer of a processor owns intellectual property to protect the designs that differentiate versions and manufacturers. The designs determine the potential speed.
Usually, faster products requiring tiny processors are priced higher because of the labor to create more intricate movements and material on the smaller surfaces – in this case the surface is silicon created thinner, smaller, and layered like a condo for mobile devices. The iPhone is a somewhat larger device than most mobile handsets, yet it is still small and handheld, so it is surprising that the prices have dropped significantly.
So, which company has the technology to create smaller and more powerful processors that keep dropping in volume pricing?
Let’s look at the iPhone prices over the last few years:
2007 Pre-Launch 1.0 8BG $599 No subsidy At least 3 ARM processor cores
2007 1.0 8GB $399 No subsidy At least 3 ARM processor cores
2008 3G 8GB $599 No subsidy Perhaps as many as 5 ARM cores
2008 3G 16GB $299-$499 AT&T Contract Perhaps as many as 5 ARM cores
2008 3G 16GB $699 No subsidy Perhaps as many as 5 ARM cores
2009 3GS 16GB $199-$599 AT&T Contract Unknown – the analysts are searching for clues
What mystery processor has the tech world buzzing by creating an enormous jump in speed for the 3GS? Most, including me, bet it’s an ARM. Some speculate it is a child of ARM named the Cortex A8.
What is an ARM processor?
According to Wikipedia, ARM is a type of computational central processing unit (CPU) designed in the UK since the 1980s and ARM chips were present in 98% of all mobile phones in 2007.
The ARM design was started in 1983 led by Acorn engineers Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber. In the late 1980s Apple Computer and VLSI Technology started working with Acorn on newer versions of the ARM core. The work was so important that Acorn spun off the design team in 1990 into a new company called Advanced RISC Machines Ltd. The new Apple-ARM work would eventually turn into the ARM6, first released in early 1992.
Apple used the ARM6-based ARM 610 as the basis for their Apple Newton PDA. In 1994, Acorn used the ARM 610 as the main CPU in their RISC PC computers. DEC licensed the ARM6 architecture (which caused some confusion because they also produced the DEC Alpha) and produced the Strong-ARM. At 233 MHz this CPU drew only 1 watt of power (more recent versions draw far less).
This work was later passed to Intel as a part of a lawsuit settlement, and Intel took the opportunity to supplement their aging i960 line with the Strong-ARM. Intel later developed its own high performance implementation known as XScale which it has since sold to Marvell. ARM CPUs are found in most portable devices (PDAs, mobile phones, iPods and other digital media and music players, handheld gaming units, and calculators) to computer peripherals (hard drives, desktop routers). However, since the decline of ARM Ltd’s former parent company Acorn Computers, it no longer designs chips oriented towards desktop functions. (previous 4 paragraphs from Wikipedia)
Please note that Wikipedia sometimes intermixes ARM architecture with a the term -chip. The ARM architecture is licensed by manufactures to create chips. Marvell is one such manufacturer. ARM chips are chipsets housing the ARM architecture for the whole of this article.
In 2007, Warren East, president and chief executive officer of ARM Holdings plc, confirmed in numerous press announcements that there are – at least three – ARM processor cores present within the iPhone including a 620MHz ARM. ARM supports mobile, WiFi, and MP3. Interestingly enough, the main CPU for the iPhone tracks to the Monahan applications processor from Intel now supplied by Marvell.
A multi-core approach of at least 3 ARMs maximizes battery life for the iPhone which we all know was troublesome during the first product versions.
When the iPhone 3G arrived, it used the Samsung ARM11 – and the iPhone 3G and 3GS operating system is written for the ARM. Thus, despite Apple recently acquiring chip maker PA Semi for $278M and the founder of PA Semi, Dan Dobberpuhl, helped in the design of the Strong-ARM, most analysts believe that the iPhone 3GS is powered by ARM rather than chips from PA Semi.
Why is the ARM Cortex A8 important?
According to AnandTech, the PalmPre easily surpasses iPhone 1.0 and 3G in raw performance by using the new ARM Cortex A8 core. That may be the case for iPhone 1.0 and 3G because they use the ARM11, but the iPhone 3GS uses a Samsung SoC (system on a chip) and a Cortex A8 just like the PalmPre. What is special about the Cortex A8? It is capable of decoding and executing two RISC (reduced instruction set computing) instructions in parallel. Apple is now looking at an ARM vector unit under the marketing term NEON, at least this can be deduced by the job posting for a software engineer that was noted by MACRumors.com.
Where are the Intel chips in all this?
Intel is looking to get inside Nokia – it had hoped to collaborate with Apple – and this week’s announcement of their partnership strategy reaffirms the hurt feelings of Intel that were displayed at an October 2008 Intel Developer Forum in Taipei where vice president Shane Wall and colleague Pankaj Kedia swiped at the iPhone, “If you want to run full internet, you’re going to have to run an Intel-based architecture. iPhone struggles when tasked with running any sort of application that requires any horse power.”
What is interesting about this statement is the swipe – as mentioned above, Intel gained part of the ARM architecture in a lawsuit and extracted a version called XScale. While the new chips have been innovated, they pay homage to ARM. So, is the Intel swipe political? Perhaps. Nokia wants to become an Internet company and Intel wants more play in mobile.
Remember Baskin Robbins and their 32 flavors? Well this is mobile phone industry. We have a lot of flavors to meet the desires of the many customers. We have QWERTY key boards, multi-applications running, touch interfaces, browsers, big and small screens, clamshells and candy bars, and all the colors we can imagine. However, speed is not a flavor, it is the cream. And, we all know the difference between Baskin Robbins, Haagen-Dazs, and Breyers … and that stuff that comes in the giant jumbo plastic containers for picnics.