Last year, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) surprised the world when it announced that its iPhone 5s would sport the world's first 64-bit consumer-oriented ARM (NASDAQ:ARMH) processor. This was a custom Apple-designed processor, and -- 64-bit or not -- it was an extremely impressive design. Moreover, Apple made sure that iOS 7 and the core applications and services were recompiled to take full advantage of the new 64-bit ARM instruction set.
Unsurprisingly, at Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL) annual developers conference, known as Google I/O, Google announced that the next generation version of Android -- known as Android L -- would support all three major 64-bit instruction set architectures (ARM64, X86-64, and MIPS64). Does this mean the end of one of Apple's biggest selling points?
Android will get 64-bit en masse soon
While Apple was fond of pointing out that the other mobile players had yet to offer 64-bit capable smartphones, the reality is that, from a user experience perspective, the "64-bit" part of the equation is much less important than the actual micro-architecture -- that is, the design of the processor. There are benefits in moving from ARM32 to ARM64, but for most applications, it's a second-order effect.
So, while Apple, of course, wanted to play up this achievement -- and make no mistake, the Apple A7 was a fantastic achievement -- the move to ARM64 was inevitable, particularly as the current generation of cores available to license from ARM Holdings, as well as products running alternative architectures, are 64-bit ready.
As Google's partners roll out Android L-based devices this coming fall, it should be pretty clear that this 64-bit "advantage" on Apple's part goes away. In fact, with Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), the leading vendor of smartphone applications processors, set to roll out an entire fleet of ARM64-capable SoCs from the lowest-end Snapdragon 410 using ARM's Cortex A53 to the highest-end Snapdragon 808/810 using ARM's Cortex A57, there will be plenty of 64-bit Android phones/tablets on the market.
Is this bad news for Apple?
The real question is whether this will actually be bad news for Apple or not. Quite frankly, the answer is very likely no. The "64-bit" marketing point was probably useful in getting some people's attention; but, at the end of the day, the average smartphone buyer isn't buying a phone for the processor -- he or she is buying it for the delivered user experience.
The company that stands to benefit here is really ARM Holdings, because it will see a royalty rate increase from its chip partners as the industry moves from 32-bit designs to 64-bit designs. ARM charges a higher royalty rate for 64-bit IP.
Foolish bottom line
Is Apple set to lose one of its "headline" advantages? Well, sure. However, at the end of the day, as "neat" as the move to ARM64 was for Apple, and as nice as it was for the company to tout when the 5s launched, this is ultimately just the natural progression of technology.