Why is Apple building its own GPU architecture?

Apple has been busy plotting a move away from the PowerVR GPU designs of Imagination Technologies. What is Apple up to and why is the company doing this?

Apple is a company known for springing surprises on its users and on the media that follows the company’s every move. The latest shocker from Apple involves the company’s decision to stop licensing GPU designs from Imagination Technologies.

Apple has been using technology from Imagination Technologies in its iPhones and iPads for years. So why would the company suddenly decided to stop doing so?

A writer at AppleInsider has a deep look inside the reasons behind Apple’s decision, and the implications it has for users and Apple’s competitors.

Daniel Eran Dilger reports for AppleInsider:

Why would the company launch an internal GPU development team when it already owned a stake in Imagination Technologies, the British reference platform designer that Apple had been using for its mobile GPUs since the launch of the original iPhone?

The answer is probably not centered on cost savings. Apple pays relatively little to license Imagination's PowerVR GPU designs. In fiscal 2016, Apple paid Imagination less than $100 million for technology used across sales of more than 250 million devices that drove over $157 billion in revenues. Developing its own GPU designs would certainly cost Apple more than $100 million of R&D per year.

...an Apple GPU could be designed to serve specific use cases Imagination doesn't have any reason to address.

…the general purpose design of PowerVR--and the independent direction that Imagination is heading in for its future designs--both indicate that Apple is designing its own GPU in part to ditch the extraneous GPU goals Imagination is working on with its other clients in mind. That's the same intent Apple had in introducing Metal.

Some of the concepts Apple could incorporate in a new GPU design include ray tracing rendering for photorealistic images with real time shadows, reflections and translucency--a capability Imagination demoed last year but that apparently hasn't been adopted. In addition to making mobile games look as impressive as more powerful desktop GPUs, such a technology could also radically enhance the user interface with fluid animations and advanced lighting effects.

There are many other areas where a custom-designed GPU could set iOS devices apart as dramatically as iOS itself did a decade ago. These could include new optimized GPGPU functions for file and memory compression, file encryption, new realtime video effects and filters, Machine Learning, and perhaps even specific optimizations for compiling JavaScript or Swift, accelerating the web or enabling software development on iPads.

More at AppleInsider

It’s clear from the AppleInsider article that ditching Imagination Technologies PowerVR GPUs is yet another example of Apple wanting to control the entire widget, and also to differentiate its products from its competitors.

This makes perfect sense if you consider how Apple got screwed when Microsoft stole the original macOS interface, and how Google ripped off the original iOS interface. Apple learned from both of those situations, and it knows that it must protect its pricing power by controlling as much as possible in its products.

By owning its own GPU designs, Apple will be able to do things graphically that will be very difficult for its competitors to match. iOS devices will have the potential to pull ahead of Android yet again, and will likely stay ahead for years. Google and other companies will be using off the shelf GPUs that won't be able to keep up with Apple's custom designed GPUs.

Controlling its own GPU designs also matches Apple’s history of controlling its own CPU designs in iOS devices. The company has long used the CPUs in its iOS devices to keep ahead of competitors (remember the switch to 64-bit in iOS devices?) and to add a great deal of additional value to its products in a way that Google, Samsung and others cannot easily match.

So the bottom line here is that Apple is making another smart move that will probably pay off very handsomely over the next ten years. iOS devices will probably be able to offer features and performance that Android devices will have a tough time matching.

I have to give Tim Cook and his management team credit for doing this. Apple designed GPUs in iOS devices (and maybe the Mac too someday) show that the company is determined to make sure that the iPhone and iPad do not become commodity devices, thus justifying and preserving Apple's higher pricing for these devices.

If you want all the features and performance enhancements that will be offered by Apple's custom designed GPUs, you'll need to buy an iPhone, Apple Watch or iPad.

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