How much credit does Apple deserve for the coming mobile 64-bit evolution?
There has been a lot of talk over the past few months about the move to 64-bit processors mobile processors. Obviously, the talk began with Apple's surprise announcement that the A7 system-on-a-chip (SoC) that would be found in the iPhone 5s was a 64-bit processor, making it the first 64-bit processor in a smartphone. But, as always happens when Apple does something like this, there is a debate about who was really "first"; so, I wanted to take a look at the entire ecosystem and talk about how much credit Apple really deserves in the coming mobile 64-bit evolution.
The conversation about the topic has gotten quite muddled since Apple surprised us with the 64-bit A7, mostly because of a combination of bad choices by Qualcomm, and the unsurprising response from Samsung saying that it was working on its own 64-bit mobile processors. Qualcomm notoriously had an employee who called Apple's A7 a gimmick, saying that it would have "zero benefit" for users. Qualcomm distanced itself from the comments, and quietly reassigned the employee. That response might make you think that Qualcomm didn't agree with the statement, but really it was a public relations move because Qualcomm didn't want the backlash when it introduced its own 64-bit processors, one of which was unveiled recently.
The thing is that the Qualcomm employee who was a bit too candid wasn't wrong. Today, a Qualcomm insider claimed that the Apple "set off panic in the industry" when it introduced the A7, not because it was something revolutionary, but because it was a natural evolutionary change on which Apple jumped the gun. The insider went on to basically reiterate points that I had made when Apple first announced the A7 - the chip is a great building block for the future and has more value as a marketing tool for Apple, because it has limited performance benefits right now since most software isn't optimized, and the hardware is nowhere near where you would expect for 64-bit.
And, that's really the issue here when I ask the question: How much credit does Apple deserve for the coming mobile 64-bit evolution? Because, at the end of the day, no matter what company did it first, the change was bound to happen. In fact, it was already in the process of happening. We have to keep in mind that while Apple's A7 is the first 64-bit processor to be put into a smartphone, the iPhone 5s was not the first mobile device to be running a 64-bit processor and 64-bit OS. Remember, the original Microsoft Surface Pro which debuted last year was running 64-bit Windows 8 Pro on a 64-bit Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge.
feel right. Regardless of where you feel comfortable landing on this, the point still stands that the idea of "first" is already a bit nebulous.
So, yes, Apple's iPhone 5s was technically the first smartphone that featured a 64-bit processor, and it was the first mobile-only OS to be completely optimized for 64-bit. But, there's another caveat that must be made: iOS 7 is the first mobile-only OS to be fully optimized for 64-bit. Windows 8 Pro was on mobile devices beforehand; and, while Android as a whole isn't optimized for 64-bit, it does have 64-bit support in its kernel, which was inherited from Linux.
Of course, there is still the issue that one of the main reasons for the use of a 64-bit processor is to handle the memory addressing when a device has 4GB of RAM or more. This again is something that will be useful in the future, but given that current iOS devices top out at 1GB of RAM, it's unclear exactly when that work will bear fruit.
All of this adds up to a simple realization: the move to 64-bit was not only an inevitable shift, but it is one that has been in the works in various ways with multiple platforms. Given that, it is very difficult to claim that Apple deserves a large amount of credit. But, that's not to say that Apple doesn't deserve any credit. Remember, there were MP3 players before the iPod, smartphones before the iPhone, and tablets before the iPad; but, it is undeniable that Apple had significant impacts on those markets once it released its products.
When you look at the 64-bit conversation, Apple's major contribution follows its company history by helping to fuel the media frenzy around 64-bit (something that Apple has always been good at), and to push other platforms to speed up the evolution to 64-bit. Now that 64-bit has been pumped into the general lexicon so much with Apple's launch of the iPhone 5s, iPad Air, and iPad mini with Retina display, Apple has once again given another point of comparison when you inevitably see the various articles pitting an iOS device against an Android, Windows Phone, or other devices.
As laid out earlier, the distinction doesn't really mean anything right now. iOS is optimized, but the apps aren't; Android isn't optimized, and neither are the apps; and, while Windows 8 has been optimized, Windows Phone and RT haven't been optimized for 64-bit. Apple has said that all new app submissions and updates after February 1st must be "optimized for iOS 7", but that doesn't necessarily mean optimized for 64-bit. Apple's focus right now seems to be on apps getting the visual update to feel more at home in iOS 7. Apps must be made using Xcode 5, which offers support for optimizing for 64-bit, but the note that Apple sent out to developers didn't mention 64-bit at all and only pointed developers to the iOS Human Interface Guidelines.
So, whether or not the Samsung Galaxy S5 launches with a 64-bit processor in February or March won't mean anything until Google updates Android, and gets developers to update their apps as well (a notoriously long and slow process when it comes to Android). Ultimately, manufacturers are in an arms race not to get to a certain goal first, but rather to see who can build a foundation the fastest. It is inevitable that an Android smartphone will cross the 4GB of RAM barrier before any other smartphone (unless Canonical can somehow convince a hardware partner to build the Ubuntu Edge). But, Apple will undoubtedly have the majority of its app ecosystem updated for 64-bit well before any other platform.
No matter how you slice it, 64-bit for mobile is nothing more than a work-in-progress at this point. It will eventually become the standard, as anyone could have predicted far before Apple announced its A7. Apple hasn't really started anything, but it has certainly brought more awareness to the topic, for good and for bad. The best that can be said for now is that the evolution to 64-bit may happen a bit faster than before Apple's iPhone 5 announcement. The worst that can be said is that there will be plenty of comparisons that list "64-bit support" as a pro for iOS, when no one is really going to feel the benefits for a while to come.