Apple's 64-Bit Advantage

There was a mixed reaction to Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) original announcement of its 64-bit A7 chip in its iPhone 5s. But as time goes on, it's clear Apple's choice to go 64-bit in its mobile devices was a game-changing decision -- and one that put the company a step ahead of many of its rivals.

A7 processor. From Apple's iPhone 5s keynote.

64-bit reactions
While Apple designs its own chips for mobile devices, it licenses ARM Holdings' 64-bit architecture in its A7 processors. Apple's move to 64-bit is a fundamental first step into the inevitable future of desktop-class architecture on mobile devices. Sure, Apple won't see huge benefits from the technology initially, since much of the benefit of 64-bit processors is not realized in devices with any less than 4 GB of RAM, and Apple's iPhone 5s only has 1 GB. But it does set the stage for a smooth transition to 64-bit in the future.

When Apple introduced the technology, the first major public reaction from the chip world came from Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM  )  VP Anand Chandrasekher. He criticized Apple's decision to adopt 64-bit architecture as a "marketing gimmick," saying there is "zero benefit" to the consumer. A week later Qualcomm backtracked, calling the comments "inaccurate."

Today, it's quite obvious Apple made an excellent strategic move with 64-bit architecture. One unnamed source from Qualcomm recently confessed that the announcement of Apple's 64-bit A7 incited panic at the company, according to HubSpot's Dan Lyons. The Qualcomm employee elaborated:

The 64-bit Apple chip hit us in the gut. Not just us, but everyone, really. We were slack-jawed, and stunned, and unprepared. It's not that big a performance difference right now, since most current software won't benefit. But in Spinal Tap terms it's like, 32 more, and now everyone wants it.

The future implications
Though it's true a few developers have been able to take advantage of the architecture even with just 1 GB of RAM, most apps aren't benefiting noticeably yet. But as the Qualcomm employee admitted, this doesn't mean the switch to 64-bit architecture was in vain.

Switching to 64-bit provides Apple several major benefits. First, it sets the stage for developers to begin optimizing apps for 64-bit before a device that can fully utilize the technology arrives. Second, it builds the foundation for a potential 13-inch iPad. And after the launch of the iPad Air, an iPad Pro seems like a likely next step. A 13-inch iPad Pro would make sense, too, since the product naming would mimic the way Apple categorizes its Macbook lineup: Macbook Air and Macbook Pro.

At this point, there's really no arguing that Apple made the right move. Both Samsung and Qualcomm have announced they will be introducing 64-bit architecture to their future smartphone processors. But Apple's first-mover advantage will give the company a significant head start in the technology -- and that Qualcomm employee's remarks seem to confirm that thesis.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On December 18, 2013, at 9:06 PM, twolf2919 wrote:

    Good article.

    But I have to ask this question: what would be the point of an iPad "Pro"? I can see why Apple might want to release an iPad in a 13" form factor - a larger display makes certain tasks easier (e.g. reading schematics or full-color text books) - but such a device would not require any more memory or processing power than the current iPad.

    So, I don't think Apple is going 64-bits to power the next iPad. Rather, I think that maybe Apple is planning on eventually moving its laptops over to the A7 architecture. I bet somewhere in the bowels of Apple, a version of Mac OS X is already running on the A7 or A7x. But this won't be soon, for sure, as Apple's chips are not nearly as powerful as Intel's current desktop offerings. But, Apple is known to dream large.

    Note that I'm not suggesting that Apple is planning to move its laptops to iOS - that would be akin to the stupid move Microsoft made with Windows 8 - and Apple is too smart for that. But by moving to its own CPU, Apple can better control costs and gain even greater efficiencies of scale.

  • Report this Comment On December 18, 2013, at 9:06 PM, lrd555 wrote:

    Equally important, Apple's iOS is 64 bit optimized.

    Performance equals hardware plus software plus development environment. Apple's got all three. Android has none. Plus major fragmentation issues.

    Talk about a challenge.

  • Report this Comment On December 18, 2013, at 10:15 PM, twolf2919 wrote:

    "Performance equals hardware plus software plus development environment. Apple's got all three. Android has none"

    Google has hardware (Nexus and Motorola phones), software (Android as well as all the Google service apps) and development environment (all major development environments - e.g. Eclipse, Netbeans, IntelliJ - have Android plugins). So that statement is manifestly false.

    But Android does have major fragmentation and malware issues that will be difficult to address. The former is, of course, due to the sheer number of different hardware devices out there. Apple has less than a handful of iOS devices its software needs to run on, Google's Android needs to run on hundreds, if not thousands. Google will never be able to optimize the Android "experience" to the same extent Apple can because of this fragmentation.

  • Report this Comment On December 18, 2013, at 11:53 PM, demodave wrote:

    twolf, I am not sure that we might not actually see an A7 in a MacBook Air. it might *be* an ultralight (ultrabook *cough*), but it could boast other advantages of playing very nicely with both iOS 7 and OS X.

    On a tangential note, I've been anticipating some sort of Grand Unification Device for quite some time. Maybe technology has finally caught up with the idea of the PowerBook Duo! ;)

  • Report this Comment On December 19, 2013, at 3:19 AM, zippero wrote:

    There's no 64-bit Android OS for the forseeable future. This lets Apple's 64-bit iPhone 5S and 64-bit iPhone 6 rule for the next 2 years. The Galaxy S4 without a 64-bit Android OS will be an even bigger flop than the 32-bit Galaxy S4. Android is actually dumbing down by making sure KitKat runs on low-spec devices with minimal RAM. A 64-bit Android requires more minimal RAM. KitKat's focus on low-spec devices is an effort to reduce Android fragmentation but at the expense of coming out with a 64-bit Android OS anytime soon.

  • Report this Comment On December 19, 2013, at 3:20 AM, zippero wrote:

    Correction: "The Galaxy S5 without a 64-bit Android OS will be an even bigger flop than the 32-bit Galaxy S4."

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