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What Can We Learn From The iPad About Chip Design?

Comments(0)Filed under: Logic Design, ARM, system design, IP, Jack Erickson, Apple, Imagination, software, iPad

You probably heard that Apple announced a touchscreen tablet computer last week.

The announcement came with a lot of talk of it defining a new product category. That's somewhat laughable, since tablet computers have been around for a few years.

BUT - the previous tablet computers were all based on notebook architectures and processors. They have essentially been notebook PC's enhanced with touchscreens and swivel displays. For a platform to be useful as a tablet, it has to be much more graphics-intensive than a traditional PC (no keyboard!) with faster response times (you need immediate feedback that you did in fact press the virtual buttons).This translates to more CPU horsepower. At the same time, a tablet needs to have better battery life than a notebook, hopefully using a smaller and lighter battery. Now this is a tall order.

For this unique combination of performance and power efficiency, it seems that Apple relied on it's own processor development team, the bulk of which was acquired as P.A. Semi. However there are also reports that instead of P.A.'s original Power Architecture approach, they used an ARM Cortex combined with an Imagination graphics core. And no doubt they added some of their own hardware IP.

If this is the case, what does this mean for chip design? Some thoughts:

  1. If you want to create a new product category, you need to design every aspect of the product to deliver what's needed for your target market.
  2. You don't need to re-invent the wheel. Or at least you don't need to design it from scratch. Combining off-the-shelf IP with your own unique IP helps you get to market more quickly with your piece of differentiation.
  3. Sometimes it's better to not re-invent the wheel. One of the advantages of the iPad is that it can run iPhone apps, tiny as they may look. This is because they used the same processor architecture. At the very least, the iPhone apps will be easier to port.
  4. They key to a successful consumer product is content. Realizing that probably led Apple to many of these difficult decisions, but ultimately gives them a leg up on the other entrants in this new category. The approach is systems-in - what do you want the product and it's user experience to be, then figure out what you need for hardware and software, and design them together.

It remains to be seen if this product will succeed in the marketplace or not, but there are some good lessons in their product design approach. What else can we learn from this?

Jack Erickson


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