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Apple's hire of Adobe CTO foretells move toward iOS-OS X hybrids

'Sending a signal,' says analyst, by pairing Kevin Lynch with Bob Mansfield, Apple's top engineer now working on processors

Former Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch will serve as Apple's Vice President of Technology. (Image: Adobe) Apple's hiring of Adobe's former CTO Kevin Lynch opens some intriguing possibilities for the Cupertino, Calif. company's future moves, analysts said today.

Much of the coverage of Lynch's move focused on his stance on Flash, the technology that Apple has famously dissed and dismissed. One noted Apple-centric blogger, John Gruber, called Lynch a "bozo" and "a bad hire" for that reason alone.

But industry analysts focused on what Lynch brings the table, not what he had defended in his previous position.

"The best architected shifts have a grasp on the software that's intended to run on the silicon, and I see this as just that," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "Lynch brings more software experience into the planning of the next generation of Apple's processors."

Lynch left Adobe, where he was the chief technology officer, for Apple, where he will have the title Vice President of Technology, and report to Bob Mansfield.

Mansfield, who retired last June but then returned to Apple two months later, once ran all Mac hardware development. Currently, however, he heads a new group, dubbed "Technologies," that Apple said last year would "combine all of Apple's wireless teams ... in one organization" and perhaps more importantly, would be responsible for "the semiconductor teams, who have ambitious plans for the future."

Lynch, of course, comes from a software background. At Adobe, he was a driver of that company's shift to Creative Cloud, a set of cloud-based applications sold through a software-by-subscription model. But he also has a wealth of Mac experience, having worked at General Magic, a company founded by several members of the original 1984 Mac team, and before that, helped develop FrameMaker, a document editor, for the Mac.

The pairing of the software expert Lynch with Apple's top hardware engineer, Mansfield, had analysts intrigued by the possibilities.

Moorhead's thoughts centered around Lynch bringing his software expertise to processor development, likely for the Mac. "He knows x86 and ARM," said Moorhead of Lynch. "They can take his know-how and feed that into the processor architecture to optimize the next-generation silicon."

Apple is known for doing just that with the ARM-based, in-house processor designs that power its iOS devices, the iPhone and iPad. By optimizing the processor for the software it's intended to run, Moorhead argued, Apple is able to squeeze more battery life, more performance from its chips than standard ARM designs.

"Apple did that really well for the iPhone," Moorhead said. "They knew what every transistor [in the processor] was going to be doing, and they did that three years before the product launched."

Moorhead believes that Apple will press forward on a 64-bit, multi-core ARM processor design that packs enough horsepower to both run iOS apps and decode Intel instructions to run OS X software on the chip, a necessary move if Apple, as Moorhead has posited before, merges its two product lines.

"I can see Apple designing a super ARM chip to move up the stack [to the Mac], to remove Intel," said Moorhead in a 2012 interview with Computerworld The benefits: A single development environment for mobile devices and traditional Macs, and putting hundreds of thousands of mobile apps on the Mac platform.

"Lynch reporting to Mansfield sends a statement that Apple is going to include a lot of his experience in the next generation of hardware," Moorhead said today.

Others were piqued by Apple's hire, and saw similar -- although much less radical -- possibilities.

"We don't have to be as drastic as thinking the OSes will merge," countered Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Gartner. "But there is more synergy between software and hardware that has to happen at Apple. The two go hand in hand."

Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research was with Milanesi on this one.

"I've never bought that [iOS and OS X must merge]," said Gottheil today. "Macs are Macs, there's no need to mess with the Intel processor there."

Instead, Gottheil saw other value to Apple in Lynch.

"The cloud is where Adobe has been leading application developers," he noted. "Apple could use some of that creativity in the cloud. Their [offerings] are kind of boring and repetitive."

One possibility, said Gottheil, was Apple's interest in Lynch for his work at Adobe on its development platform. Adobe, faced with resistance from Apple and others against its Flash technology, has been shifting to HTML5 development.

"Maybe Apple wants an HTML5 development platform, where Adobe has been playing," Gottheil speculated.

Moorhead, however, was adamant that Lynch's arrival signaled more, saying that Apple was probably working on a long-term project -- two to three years is typical in processor design, he said, citing his experience at AMD -- to create silicon that would power a hybrid device able to run both iOS and OS X software, and be the first of a hardware line that continued to blend elements of both as Apple slowly downsized from two operating systems to one.

In that regard, the move would be somewhat similar to the strategy that rival Microsoft has espoused, a single kernel for Windows on the desktop, on tablets and on smartphones.

"I can see something like the [Microsoft] Surface, or a priced-down MacBook running this," said Moorhead of his prediction of Apple's plans for the Mansfield-Lynch partnership. "It could be a hybrid product in between the iPad and Mac."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is [email protected].

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Read more about macintosh in Computerworld's Macintosh Topic Center.


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