Apple is in the process of switching its PCs to Arm-based SoCs, but the company might not be putting all its eggs into one basket, as it is also exploring the emerging open-source RISC-V architecture. This week the company posted a job alert for RISC-V high-performance programmer(s).
Apple is currently looking for experienced programmers with detailed knowledge of the RISC-V Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) and Arm's Neon vector ISA for its Vector and Numerics Group (VaNG) within its Core Operating Systems group. Apple's VaNG is responsible for developing and improving various embedded subsystems running on iOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS.
Known for its secrecy, Apple's listing doesn't disclose exactly what it plans to do with RISC-V, but the job description indicates (opens in new tab) that the programmer will have to work with machine learning, computational vision, and natural language processing. Among other things, low-level high-performance programming experience is required. Furthermore, the job description also indicates that Apple is already working with RISC-V.
"You will work in a SW and HW cross functional team which is implementing innovative RISC-V solutions and state of the art routines," the description reads [emphasis added]. "This is to support the necessary computation for such things as machine learning, vision algorithms, signal and video processing. Push the state of the art in low level computation and drive them towards energy efficient and high performance implementations by tightly integrating software and hardware."
Currently, Apple has dozens of products across multiple product lines. For example, high-performance devices like MacBook laptops, iPhone smartphones, iPad tablets, and Apple TV set-top-boxes are based on custom system-on-chips (SoCs) that use highly-customized Arm cores. In addition, devices like Apple's Watch, Airpods, and Homepod Mini use system-in-packages (SiPs) powered by technologies from Arm. Apple also uses Arm cores inside its controllers (e.g., T2, W3, U1, etc.).
All-in-all, in addition to the SoCs that power the devices that make it to headlines, every Apple device these days has numerous Arm cores (in fact, there are some controllers still powered by x86). Every Arm core requires Apple to pay a licensing fee to Arm, and since the number of cores for things like SSD controllers and smartwatches will only increase, so will Apple's payments to Arm. As such, replacing at least some Arm cores with RISC-V cores could save Apple millions of dollars in royalty payments every year, much like Western Digital adopted RISC-V cores for its low-power solutions years ago.
But the integration of custom RISC-V cores into the Apple ecosystem requires the company to prepare a software stack and ensure that everything works flawlessly. This is where programmers familiar with RISC-V and Arm's vector architecture come into play.
Given that Apple is already working on RISC-V solutions, it is likely now only a matter of time before the company replaces certain types of cores with RISC-V. However, it remains to be seen is how far Apple will be willing to go with its RISC-V initiative. RISC-V currently focuses on lower-performance applications, but the ISA is developing fast, and the first high-performance RISC-V designs will emerge soon.
The sooner Apple invests in RISC-V, they will have a better exit plan from ARM when/if nVidia manages to buy them.
AFAIK apple and nvidia have issues among them long before the GPU licensing thing. mostly it is about software/driver on the GPU. also apple has been working more than a decade with ARM. they have spend billions developing their custom core. ditch ARM and apple will need another 10 to 15 years to develop new RISC-V CPU that can be used on their all product stack. so rather than ditching ARM they most likely will try to work it out with nvidia. and nvidia is not a simple idiot to ruin things with apple and make apple looking for an alternatives. apple is one of the best chipmaker that use ARM IP. rather than looking troubles with apple nvidia should know company like apple can work as a big marketing for ARM itself.
Leave me on x86 as-is or give me RISC-V.
Firstly - it's a low-key geopolitical (anti-neoliberal) message implying that Apple isn't keen on Nvidia's acquisition of Arm. Given Nvidia's track record, none of the big tech companies who are reliant on ARM, trust Nvidia to be in control of what looks to be the more dominant ISA in the years ahead. So it's prudent to have a contingency plan for if the acquisition is allowed to go ahead. Also, Apple have enjoyed the freedom to be creative with ARM: perhaps they fear that things will change, going forward.
Secondly, Apple like control. Using RISC-V gives them the ultimate freedom to develop as they might wish, without having to submit their plans to Arm's board, and await an adjudication. The RISC-V license allows companies to retain their intellectual property - so Apple could design proprietary extensions.
Thirdly, RISC-V is a new ISA, and has some well-considered solutions to potential computing issues ahead... Nor is it encumbered (and because of its modularity, it is unlikely so to be) with the scars of changes and work-arounds due to developments in computing needs, as both X86 and ARM have been. Perhaps Apple can see potential to do things more easily with RISC-V than with ARM.
Fourthly, RISC-V is gaining maturity. RISC-V is established in the embedded and microcontroller space (MPUs) and is now beginning to produce application processors (APUs). There would have to be a very good reason for Apple (or anyone else) to continue to pay license fees and royalties if there is a credible alternative.
It might well be that, at least initially, Apple are considering (or are already using) microcontrollers or co-processors that are RISC-V. This advertisement doesn't necessarily mean that Apple are looking to ditch ARM completely. But it's more evidence that tech companies are not going to be beholden to Nvidia-Arm.
Apple has a good record of changing ISAs smoothly - from PowerPC to Intel to ARM... An Open Source ISA might be a safer, better place to transition to.