Why Apple's Move to a 64-bit iPhone 5s is So Darn Clever

Some observers underestimate what's to be gained by Apple's 64-bit A7 in the iPhone 5s. Is it really just a marketing stunt? Or an inadvisable plan to put 64-bit ARM CPUs into MacBooks? I want to look at why the move to marry iOS with 64-bits is so darn clever, now and for the long term.



First, I need to talk about innovation. And this move to 64-bits in an iPhone is an innovation that took time. So while pundits claimed that Apple was devoid of ideas and new technology, Apple was working behind the scenes to really put the screws to the competition.

So much for the idea that Apple has been drifting.

So how does a company innovate? All we have to do is look at how Apple positioned itself on the Mac and OS X side.

Over the years, those savvy enough and lucky enough to attend WWDC saw how Apple made a very careful, well thought out transition to 64-bits on the Mac. The first rule is to have a solid, graceful development roadmap that makes life easy for developers and customers. Apple did that by architecting the OS X frameworks so that 32-bit and 64-bit apps could run simultaneously on the Mac. Seamlessly. Apple engineers made sure Xcode would allow developers to gracefully move to 64-bits and invoke advanced Apple technologies with the latest compilers.

The second rule is to ruthlessly, relentlessly throw away technologies of the past so that the architecture isn't tied down with legacy dead weight. I recall the anger and resentment by developers when Apple announced, many years ago now, that there would be no 64-bit Carbon framework. Apple was single-minded, and focused on 64-bit Cocoa so that they could move both developers and customers forward.

If you do things like that, you can be poised to exploit technology when the time is ripe. If I may, I'll strain a famous saying: Serendipity is when preparation meets opportunity.

Phil Schiller introduces the 64-bit A7 SoC. (Image credit: Apple)

Seizing the Opportunity

The advantages of a 64-bit architecture are clear. Math functions are more accurate. More data can be gobbled from memory in larger chunks, and that means more processing speed. Registers are larger and do more work in a single cycle. The address bus is generally larger, and while that doesn't matter now, it will down the road with other Apple platforms, like the iPad, that may need lots of RAM.

It's easy for Apple to dig into Android and look at its architecture. Seeing what the competition has done and what the limitations are with Android and 32-bits probably led Apple's engineers to surmise that their well-planned, seamless transition to 64-bits on the Mac/OS X side could be leveraged to give them a competitive advantage with iOS, too. For example, Carl Howe told John Paczkowski at AllThingsD :

Because Apple makes the development environment and has updated those tools for 64-bit architectures, a developer only really needs to recompile their application to make it 64-bit compatible — assuming they haven’t done anything non-standard with their code,” said Howe. “This will not be true with Android, by the way. The Android Java app and native app environment will need support from Oracle, who owns the Java environment, as well as 64-bit support from the Android kernel. Android has a lot more moving pieces to coordinate, and will take longer to go to 64-bit.”

Apple traditionally loves to gain a deep technical understanding of how the software they've developed can be leveraged to gain a technical advantage -- and then spring it on the world.  While observers may, at times, revel in smug criticism of Apple's perceived lack of innovation, Apple is able to quietly, in secret, dig deep into its technological expertise and then make life difficult for other companies, especially those who don't integrate their own OS with their own hardware. Apple has done this over and over. How soon we forget.

The Baloney Files

What I don't see Apple doing, as some have suggested, is developing a 64-bit iOS and A7 so as to someday move all that technology into Macs. Right now, Windows isn't dead (yet) and many Apple customers need to run Windows on Mac hardware. To do that, they need the virtualization hardware in Intel chips, exploited by, say, Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion.

Apple would have to include virtualization hardware in its future ARM A(x) System on a Chip (SoC), and I don't see that happening for chips designed to run in a low-power, mobile environment.

Plus, as we saw at WWDC, we got every indication from Apple Senior Vice President Craig Federighi that Apple has realized with renewed vigor that while OS X and iOS should interoperate, they still do different things for different users.


The 64-bit architecture will extend to iPads and perhaps even an enhanced Apple TV set-top-box that can run 64-bit apps. We've already seen how iPads have been embraced in aviation and the sciences, so 64-bit computing is a natural evolution there. That powerful A7 also comes into play with Apple's camera system in terms of stabilization and image processing speed.

For those who've been wondering what Apple will be doing with TV, 64-bit processing and the ability to address more memory are probably pre-requisites for the kinds of advanced graphics and gaming Apple has in mind. For example, as Ben Bajarin astutely pointed out, "First, 64 bit will dramatically increase the performance of more intensive and demanding applications. Things like audio and video encoding/decoding and any graphically intense applications including games and other visually complex applications." You saw that advantage come to life in the September 10 Keynote in the Infinity Blade 3 demo.

All in all, Apple's clever move to 64-bits has outflanked the competition, given Apple a competitive edge right now, and prepared the foundation for technologies to come. And it sure beats tapping your phones together with an NFC link.


Checkmate on 64 squares via Shutterstock