What's at the core of U. Wisconsin's suit against Apple?

Apple’s late entrance into designing and building multi-core processors might put the company at risk of more related patent litigation.

At the center of the estimated $862 million judgment awarded to the University of Wisconsin in a jury trial is a parallel processing patent essential to efficient multi-core computing.

The ubiquity of multi-core processors put microprocessor vendors on a collision course with Wisconsin. Intel already settled a similar lawsuit with Wisconsin in 2009. What Apple products are affected?

Wisconsin claimed and proved that Apple's A7, A8 and A8X processors (all produced in 2013 or later) infringed on its patent, so it is due damages on prior shipments and patent licensing fees on future shipments of the iPhone 5s, 6 and 6 Plus, according to CNET.

Wisconsin filed another law suit against Apple last month claiming that the A9 and A9X, found in the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus and the forthcoming iPad Pro also infringe on the patent, according to CNET. Why is a patent from 1998 important?

Dual-core, quad-core and more recently hexa-core processors are increasingly found in smartphones, tablets and PCs. A CPU with more than one core improves performance only when both cores are efficiently utilized. If two applications are completely independent, each can be assigned to a separate core.

The University of Wisconsin’s patent applies to processing a single application across multiple cores. Instead of processing instructions sequentially, if the dependency of instructions and data can be predicted, the independent instructions can be executed in parallel on separate cores increasing overall performance.

The limits of Moore’s Law as applied to single processor architectures were anticipated decades ago, spawning a myriad of hardware, software and hybrid parallel architecture research projects at the top academic institutions.

Supercomputer maker Mutliflow spun out of Yale University in the late 1980s. Multiflow failed as a business but proved that the compiler analysis of data dependencies on parallel instruction execution could lead to faster general purpose processing.

Before Multiflow, super fast processors were array processors designed to solve specialized mathematical problems. The University of Illinois anticipated sequential processor speed increases could not continue to be engineered indefinitely. Illinois began to research parallel processing with the ILLIAC IV in 1994.

At the same time Illinois collaborated with Intel and Hewlett-Packard to create an automatic parallelizing compiler technology for parallel computing processors based on Instruction-Level Parallelism (ILP) techniques. Illinois contributed ILP to the compiler technologies used to deliver performance increases to Intel’s Itanium multi-core processors introduced in 2000.

With the vast amount of research on this subject, it’s hard to tell why Wisconsin and not another research institute owned the right patents. We asked this question to the lead inventor of the Wisconsin patent Andreas Moshovos PhD, currently a professor at the University of Toronto. Professor Moshovos deferred any comment because of the ongoing patent litigation. We can only speculate that the Wisconsin patent is very specific in its description of a hardware circuit necessary for multi-core parallel processing.

Apple can be expected to appeal the decision. Windfall patent awards like this tend to repeatedly be appealed. Apple is a relative newcomer to the multi-core processor business. Apple’s first multi-core processor was the A5 introduced in the iPhone 4s in 2011. Intel, HP and IBM all have been collaborating with universities on the parallel processing research for decades so they may be better positioned, having acquired licenses before the huge size of the multi-core processor consumer electronics market was fully understood.

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