deja vu: apple’s anobit acquisition

To say I have read a few articles on Apple’s, first rumoured and then confirmed, acquisition of Anobit is an understatement. Of course not all of the articles are created equal.

Without dwelling on the negative Anandtech penned the most compelling piece.  While there were numerous interesting points raised, one, in particular is worth exploring.

As a bit of background Anobit designs error correction circuitry for NAND Flash memory.  With every shrink in fabrication process Flash becomes less reliable i.e. a given memory cell may produce an errant signal when read.  To this end error correction technology is essential in the memory control chip.  It is this error correction technology that often makes the signal intelligible.

In the above Anandtech article they differentiated the iOS product line from the OSX line.  While in many ways this seems like a natural demarcation you would certainly not guess it from much of the coverage.  There were some articles stating Apple used Anobit controllers for the MacBook Air while showing an ifixit photo of an Air Flash memory board.  In this iFixit photo one clearly sees Toshiba Flash and a Toshiba controller.  Oh well, but I digress.

Is there an Anobit error correction IP block included in the A5?  This may be a bit premature, and one should look at the FLASH MCM to determine if there is standard controller therein.  It is though probably safe to say that Apple is looking at incorporating such an IP block in some future A-series device.   The iOS devices fit right into the end use space that might include lower grade Flash, which is more susceptible to errors.  As noted in the article I co-authored last April there is certainly more than enough real-estate to accommodate such a block.

What about OSX devices?  Let’s think about them a bit more as it leads down an interesting path.  We know the only current OSX device with and SSD is the MacBook Air.  We also know, from above, that it uses a stand-alone Flash controller; evidenced by the above iFixit photo.  Will Apple though design a stand-alone flash controller for the OSX line?  It could be argued the numbers are less compelling for OSX devices as for iOS devices.  At the moment it is only the, albeit well selling, Air that needs such a controller.  On the flip side this acquisition may foreshadow the expansion of SSD’s in OSX laptops. It may also add a valuable integration component if Apple were to someday design its own OSX processors.  If forthcoming iterations of Anobit technology are as good as one might guess from the acquisition price, Apple may find it compelling to expand their semiconductor efforts in this direction.

Now comes the deja vu.  This all seems a lot like the Intrinsity acquisition.  In both cases Apple likely non-exclusively used or had access to the technology and liked it.  It is however probably forthcoming iterations for which Apple wants exclusively, possibly even the controller block in the forthcoming A6. In the end we can look back to Steve’s “further differentiate our products” comment at the time of the PA Semi acquisition when thinking where Apple will take Anobit.