It's been about a month since Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) debuted its new iPhone 5s running a 64-bit processor, and there's been a lot of back and forth about the significance of such a chip in mobile devices. To shed a little light on the topic, let's take a look at what exactly a 64-bit processor is, its possible benefits, and its impact on Apple's mobile future.
It's all marketing talk, until it's not
After the iPhone 5s launched, Qualcomm's senior vice president and chief marketing officer, Anand Chandrasekher, said this about the 64-bit processor: "I think they are doing a marketing gimmick. There's zero benefit a consumer gets from that." But this week, Qualcomm retreated, saying Chandrasekher's comments were "inaccurate."
His comments weren't really that far off base, however -- at least not right now. To understand what Chandrasekher was getting at, we need to understand what a 64-bit processor is, and how it works.
Think of the standard 32-bit mobile processor as a guy sitting down to have a conversation with three people. Our conversationalist could handle several comments from three people, process what they say, and respond to their questions fairly well. But let's say that we add 20 people to the table. He now has to handle conversations and questions from 23 individuals. He's going to get overwhelmed, and he won't be able to respond as well as he could with just three people.
Instead of conversations, computer processors talk in integers and, like the man in our example, they can only take in and process so much at a time. While a 32-bit processor can only handle a chunk of calculations from up to 4GB of memory, a 64-bit processor can handle a nearly infinite amount of integers -- lots of conversations, from lots of sources.
The beef Qualcomm's exec had with Apple's new 64-bit chip is that the iPhone 5s only has 1GB of RAM -- so being able to process data from more than 4GB of memory is essentially a non-issue.
But that's not to say that Apple's 64-bit A7 chip is insignificant. The move is part of a larger strategy of Apple's to position its mobile operating system and its flagship device for the future of mobile. iOS 7 was revamped to handle 64-bit hardware, a move that will likely make a difference in the company's iPads before it matters much in the iPhone. The iPad possesses much more processing power and memory, and would likely benefit from a 64-bit processor sooner than the iPhone will. But adding the chip to the 5s positions future iterations of the device to handle more complex apps, and encourages developers to create apps that can benefit from the increased processing capabilities.
For now, Apple investors should think of the 64-bit technology as an investment in the company's mobile future. Apple is positioning itself to benefit from a changing trend, and this decision sets Apple up to use similar technology in more powerful future iPads and, eventually, iPhones with more than 4GB of memory. So, while it may not mean Apple has surpassed all other smartphones with its processing power right now, it does mean that it's one step ahead of the competition
Fool contributor Chris Neiger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.