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Apple and P.A. Semi... Where Will the Chips Fall

On April 23, 2008 it was learned that Apple will acquire P.A. Semiconductor for $278 million. This has left a great many people wondering what this is all about.

P.A. Semiconductor is a small startup company. The company licensed the PowerPC architecture from IBM. Under this license P.A. Semi is able to develop independently its own PowerPC cores. The first product under this license is a dual core processor, PWRficient PA6T-1682M, running at 2GHz. It is a 64-bit super scalar design manufactured on an advanced 65nm process. According to P.A. Semi, the entire compute platform is integrated onto a single chip. The company claims that it can achieve a typical power consumption of 5 to 13 Watts.

The target markets for PA6T are high end networking and communications. Production began near the end of 2007. P.A. Semi apparently did a good job on design wins, especially with the DoD. There are news reports that the DoD has concerns over Apple’s acquisition of P.A. Semi.

Apple has been reticent about its future plans for P.A. Semi. It is not known at this time what the PowerPC licensing situation would be with IBM. A few years ago Apple dropped the PowerPC in favor of the Intel 80×86 family for its PC products. ARM-based devices are used in portable products such as iPod and iPhone.

Semico believes it is unlikely Apple will become a merchant market chip vendor. Any current commitments for the PWRficient product line, such as for the DoD, could continue. P.A. Semi is fabless and the products are manufactured at a foundry in any case. Whether Apple continues to handle this or it sells off PWRficient to another company, it would appear that the roadmap for this MPU will hit a dead end.

Semico does not believe that PWRficient or a derivative would be used for portable products. ARM is well entrenched and well suited for these type of applications. Except for previous notebooks from Apple, PowerPC has not played in the mobile space. Since PWRficient was designed for networking and communication there is a remote possibility Apple would use it on the enterprise side of the consumer equation. All those iPhones and iPods keep demanding more bandwidth. However, this is a low probability.

The main reason for acquiring P.A. Semi may be more for the design team and patents. P.A. Semi was founded by Dan Dobberpuhl, the lead designer of the DEC Alpha series of processors and the DEC StrongARM. Intel acquired StrongARM with DEC semiconductor operations and renamed it XScale. Intel sold off XScale to Marvel. The more likely scenario is that Apple will want to develop its own internal design group. The company can license any one of a number of IP cores such as ARM. Any SoCs could be manufactured by a foundry. That seems like one way to cut out the middle man and lower chip costs for Apple.

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