What it is: Apple recently announced they will no longer rely on graphics processors from Imagination Technologies.
There are several reasons why Apple no longer wants to rely on third-party processors. Back in the old days, Apple used ARM processors, which any rival could buy. That meant a rival could buy the exact same parts as Apple, sell their product for a lower price, and claim superiority based on the lower price alone. To combat this, Apple now only licenses the basic ARM architecture but custom designs their own ARM processors. That means Apple can optimize their ARM processor (dubbed the A series such as the A10) to run iOS. Unlike Android device manufacturers, Apple’s iPhone is optimized to run as efficiently as possible while Android devices use off-the-shelf components that are not optimized to work together.
The end result is that Android devices often need faster processors and more RAM just to meet the same performance as an iPhone using a slower processor and less RAM. Now Apple is focusing on the graphics processor market.
Previously, Apple relied on Imagination Technologies’ graphics processors, but then Imagination Technologies could turn around and sell those exact same graphics processors to anyone else. Since Imagination Technologies was earning half of their revenue from Apple, Apple was essentially paying for Imagination Technologies’s research that rivals would ultimately benefit form as well. By cutting out Imagination Technologies and developing their own graphics processors, Apple no longer needs to support a company that will help its rivals.
More importantly, Apple wants greater optimization with graphics processors for two reasons: augmented reality and artificial intelligence.
Augmented reality is going to be the next major major mobile computing market and Apple wants dedicated graphics processors that rivals can’t use. Rivals will already be caught flat-footed when Apple releases their version of augmented reality so by denying them the same graphics processors, Apple will force rivals to use less efficient graphics processors to go along with their rushed augmented reality software frameworks. The result will likely be a sloppy mess that works, but won’t work as well as Apple’s solution that is optimized for hardware and has long been planned and designed ahead of time for efficiency and expandability.
Apple has the luxury of taking its time developing augmented reality because they have no deadlines. Once Apple releases augmented reality for the iPhone and iPad, rivals will have to rush their augmented reality solutions to Android and they won’t have the luxury of time to develop and optimize their solution.
A second reason Apple wants its own graphics processors is because graphics processors are used for artificial intelligence (AI). AI is used for everything from self-driving cars to voice recognition assistants like Siri. By optimizing their own graphics processor for dedicated tasks like machine learning, Apple can create sharper graphics for their devices and advance their AI efforts in ways that rivals can’t match using off-the-shelf components.
Apple simply wants to control as much of their parts as possible and reduce dependence on any third-party who could easily support Apple’s rivals. Augmented reality and artificial intelligence are two major developments that will only grow in importance. By limiting rivals’ access to technology that Apple relies on, Apple can create a performance advantage that rivals can never match. Because rivals sell lower-cost items at razor thin margins, they can’t afford to spend as much in research to match Apple’s efforts in graphics processors. This will only widen the gap between Apple and its rivals.
Apple didn’t announce they’re dropping Imagination Technologies’ graphics processors in two years because they’re starting their own graphics processor from scratch today. Most likely, Apple has been quietly researching its own graphics processor and now its own graphics processor is ready so Apple can start switching to their own graphics processor as soon as possible.
Expect Apple introduce its own graphics processors in its products as soon as this year. Unlike other companies that have a short-term focus, Apple has a much longer vision for the future, and that vision likely doesn’t include cutting themselves off from a supplier unless they already know with certainty that they can get along just fine without that supplier.
Imagination Technologies can sell their graphics processors to other companies, but Apple’s graphics processor is likely ready to go and offers superior performance to Imagination Technologies’ graphics processors, or else why would Apple bother switching to an inferior, in-house solution?
Imagination Technologies is sunk without Apple, but Apple is fine without Imagination Technologies. Just as Apple’s A series processors blow away rival ARM chips like Qualcomm’s SnapDragon, expect Apple’s graphics processor to blow away anything Imagination Technologies can offer.
The future is hardware control optimized for Apple’s software, and that’s a combination no rival will ever be able to meet, let alone exceed.