Why Apple's 64-bit iPhone chip probably won't matter for "years"

Tim Cook

Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Credit: Macworld/TechHive

When Apple announced the 64-bit A7 chip for the iPhone 5S the other day, Twitter lit up with chatter about how this could affect programmers. But if Telerik's Todd Anglin is right, it won't have much of an impact on developers for the foreseeable future.

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The A7 chip might not have the impact on developers many initially feared.

"While it makes for good stat comparison headlines, Apple's move to 64-bit chips won't immediately benefit developers in meaningful ways. After all, the primary reason desktop computers moved from 32-bit to 64-bit processors was to allow machines to use more than 4GB of memory. Mobile devices, especially Apple's, are still a long way from hitting that limit," Anglin, the executive VP of Cross-Platform Tools & Services at Telerik, told me.

In fact, Anglin thinks it could be years before we see apps taking advantage of the chip architecture.

"Not only do we have to reach a point where apps running on mobile devices need the extra RAM a 64-bit system allows, but we have to deal with the period of overlap where new devices are shipping with both 32-bit and 64-bit chips. Even Apple's brand new iPhone 5C will not support 64-bit apps, so developers will be motivated to built 32-bit apps as long as they make-up a meaningful portion of the lowest common denominator," Anglin explained.

Anglin points out if you want to see an example of a shift to 64-bit architecture and its impact on developers, look no further than the desktop. "Long after 64-bit become the norm on desktop, many apps to this day are built as 32-bit apps. They simply don't benefit from the things 64-bit offers. Mobile, I predict, will follow the same course," he said.

Anglin says we'll know soon enough if the new chip will have an impact on existing apps, but he suspects it will be transparent for developers. "The ARMv8 chip design that underpins the Apple A7 is designed to run 32- and 64-bit apps side-by-side with no problem. That means any existing 32-bit app should continue working, blissfully unaware of the underlying change."

But he says there are other benefits to having a faster chip even if developers aren't likely to tap into the 64-bit architecture any time soon. "That said, the other improvements in the A7 chip, such as faster processing, faster graphics, and many other geeky benefits associated with the new ARMv8 chip design will give developers an even faster phone capable of running increasingly powerful apps. And that's always a good thing."

He adds, "In fact, many of the tools we create [at Telerik] are far removed from caring about the underlying processor. They interact with APIs and abstractions provided by the operating system or browser that remove the need to compile for a specific architecture."

As a developer toolmaker, Telerik is paying attention, but he says it will have little impact on his company, at least for the short term. "Predictably, this has almost no effect on the tools we create, especially in the short-term. Eventually it may mean that we need to update the compilation of our tools to work in the 64-bit architecture, but just as with apps, our 32-bit tools will work fine," Anglin said.

All that said, Anglin points out that while the 64-bit change is actually not that exciting for developers, at least for now, many of the other changes in the iPhone 5S and iOS 7 should get their attention. "From iBeacons to the new Motion co-processor to the finger print scanner, there's a lot for developers play with and creatively integrate in their apps."

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