Apple takes an iPhone slice of Imagination

Despite public clamour over the rift between Apple and Macworld, the company’s secretive plans to develop its own mobile processors for future iPods, iPhones and other devices remain critical to its future, or so it seems.

Apple’s decision to acquire the military-grade technology expertise of PA Semi earlier this year, and its more recent attempt to hire an IBM chip expert to lead its iPod team, Mark Papermaster, all contribute to what is known on its plans.

In a surprise move today, Apple took a 3.6 per cent stake in leading mobile system-on-chip graphics developer, Imagination Technologies. Apple took 8.2m shares in Imagination at 39p per share at a cost of £3.2m.

The acquisition of the stake appears to confirm rumours that Apple was the “international electronics systems company” mentioned in Imagination’s 4 September announcement about a multi-year, multi-use licensing agreement for use of Imagination’s current and future POWERVR graphics and video intellectual property cores.

These technologies – already used in iPhone – offer excellent graphics and performance at very, very low power.

In April, an Apple Insider report confirmed a secret plan between Imagination and Samsung, speculating the aim may be to build an unmatchable platform for gaming and video playback.

The current iPhone model and most other mobile devices use a version of the PowerVR MBX graphics processor core developed by Imagination. Other manufacturers also use this core, which is included under license within chip designs.

Imagination’s next generation graphics core, the PowerVR SGX, introduces OpenGL ES 2.0 support, along with a Universal Scalable Shader Engine that provides mobile devices with highly efficient, shader-based 3D graphics.

With the built in processor expertise of PA Semi already in the frame, it’s highly probable Apple’s investment in Imagination Technologies reflects the importance of its mobile plans, and likely also reflects just how close to market products enabled by this multi-company development effort have become.

Rumours currently claim imminent launch of an Apple netbook and an iPhone nano, perhaps at the now doomed Macworld Expo next month. It also now seems likely Apple is already preparing to implement these technologies within the third version of the iPhone, though I don’t anticipate this reaching market until the June quarter.

Given also Apple’s continued work on OpenCL and Snow Leopard, it’s also highly probable the company intends introducing iPhone Software 3.0, potentially at a similar moment to the launch of Snow Leopard. As we know, Snow Leopard is a highly-optimised computer operating system, what we haven’t yet been made aware of is just how many of the improvements deployed in the OS will also be migrated to the mobile version of the software, as used in iPhone.

But you got to use your Imagination, as Apple is doing.

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