Analyst: A-series chips in Macs are inevitable considering Apple’s security goals

If Apple truly wants to bring their security philosophy to their products in every part of the ecosystem, they’ll have to make A-series processors for Macs,said Ben Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies, in a piece posted to Tech.pinions Tuesday (subscription required). He says that he’s convinced that A-series processors for Macs are inevitable, which is something I’ve said for some time. 

Bajarin's prediction was partially based on a technical briefing Apple held with a small number of analysts last week. During the briefing, Apple focused on security and encryption by explaining the integration between the 64-bit A-series silicon, the iOS operating system, and the "Secure Enclave" co-processor that uses Touch ID.

Touch ID doesn't store any images of your fingerprint. It stores only a mathematical representation of your fingerprint. Apple says it isn't possible for someone to reverse engineer your actual fingerprint image from this mathematical representation. The chip in your device also includes an advanced security architecture called the Secure Enclave developed to protect passcode and fingerprint data. 

Fingerprint data is encrypted and protected with a key available only to the Secure Enclave. Fingerprint data is used only by the Secure Enclave to verify that your fingerprint matches the enrolled fingerprint data. The Secure Enclave is walled off from the rest of the chip and the rest of iOS. Therefore, iOS and other apps never access your fingerprint data, it's never stored on Apple servers, and it's never backed up to iCloud or anywhere else, according to Apple. Only Touch ID uses it, and it can't be used to match against other fingerprint databases.

In an interview with Computerworld, Bajarin characterized Secure Enclave as the "heart of every bit of encrypted information" on an iPhone or iPad. The co-processor makes possible everything from secure boot and file encryption to its best-known task, processing the fingerprint data from an iPhone's TouchID scanner to authenticate the user for unlocking the device and authorizing electronic payment via Apple Pay.

Apple certainly has the money to make its own chips. Admittedly, such a task would be a huge one, even for Apple. However, the groundwork has been laid.

In 2008 Apple bought P.A. Semi, a chip designer that made “energy-efficient processors based on the PowerPC architecture that Apple used in Macs for years before adopting Intel’s x86 chips.” 

In December 2008 the company picked up a 3.6% stake in Imagination Technologies,  a graphics chip maker.  In 2010, Apple scooped up Intrinsity, which specializes in ARM processors. In August 2015 Apple acquired Passif Semiconductor, which manufactures switch-based wireless transceivers with low power consumption and a small footprint.

It’s not hard to imagine all Mac laptops, iMacs and Mac minis using the descendants of Apple’s A9X system-on-chip (SoC) solutions in the near future — with the Mac Pro taking longer to make the switch.