Apple's product roadmap points south

Apple will turn to Samsung as it puts more emphasis on mobile devices like the iPad and iPhone.

What's Apple cooking up for 2012 and beyond? Look south to Austin, Texas, for an answer.

That's where Apple's component partner Samsung (and legal opponent in an alternate universe) has set up camp.

In fact, probably the single biggest reason that Samsung located its $3.6 billion chip plant in Austin is to make silicon for Apple, a chip industry source familiar with Samsung's plans told me this week (and as Reuters reported).

And that makes it easier to figure out the future course of Apple's products--because we know what Samsung has done so far and we know what it is capable of doing in the future.

Here's my best (rough) guess.

iPad: As the iPad gets better displays , it also gets faster chips. The latter will come from Samsung's fabs and include the A6 and possibly A7.

Quad core, you ask? Maybe. But it's more a matter of adding circuits that do specialized tasks, such as media processing, than adding raw "general-purpose" processor cores, the source told me.

What does this mean to the device-buying public? iPads that make the laptop increasingly irrelevant. Not for everyone, mind you, but for more consumers.

As I've written before, it's not hard to imagine a well-designed hybrid device from Apple that straddles the tablet and laptop worlds. And leave it to Apple to execute this better than anyone (though Asus is doing a pretty good job right now with the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime.)

iPhone: The iPhone will mirror the advances in the iPad. That's how Apple has handled it so far and there's no reason to think that this will change in the future. The iPad got the A4 chip (made by Samsung) and then the dual-core A5 (ditto) first. Needless to say, Apple's A series chips play an extremely important role in defining the device.

More processing power, better Web browsing and gaming. And features like Siri can do more locally (on the iPhone) than on the server, for example.

Macs: Which brings us to the Mac and Intel. The good news (for Intel) is that Apple's Macs continue to be wildly successful , particularly the MacBook Air. And Intel supplies the core silicon in all Macs.

Like I said, that's the good news. The bad news is that Apple is expending significant energy and resources to make its A series of chips better and better.

The dynamic duo of Apple and Samsung could spell trouble for Intel. As mentioned above, a future MacBook packing an A6 or A7 processor isn't beyond the realm of possibility.

Intel, of course, knows this better than anyone (finally). The world's largest chipmaker announced yet another shakeup of its mobile chip group this week. Will that fix things? If the emphasis is solely on its tepidly-received small-device processor, Atom, then it gets dicey.

Luckily, Intel is doubling down on its mainstream processors to make them more power efficient. In a worst-case scenario (for Intel), Apple moves the MacBook Air to its A series of Samsung-manufactured processors and keeps Intel in the larger Macs. In a best-case scenario (for Intel), the chipmaker hits a home run with its future Haswell system-on-a-chip (or a chip codenamed Silvermont), keeping Intel inside Apple's smallest, most compelling MacBooks.

Either way it's good news for Apple's customers.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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