Apple’s silicon design team is taking control

Apple’s slick silicon design teams have a growing responsibility for the future of Apple’s platforms.

Apple, iPhone, iPhone 8, iPhone X, A11 Bionic, W2 processor, silicon, silicon design, Apple

Initial Geekbench data confirms Apple’s A11 Bionic chip to be a true speed demon, so much so that its closest competitors now seem to be battling last year’s iPhones when it comes to chip performance, but these aren’t the only silicon designs Apple is taking control of.

Groove is in the heart

Think about this:

Apple makes its own A-series processors.

It also makes the W-series Bluetooth/Wi-Fi chip, the new W2 iteration of which ushers in Bluetooth 5 support. The company claims this chip delivers 85 percent faster connectivity while consuming 50 percent less energy.

Apple also makes an eSIM, develops its own Image Signal Processor, its own video encoder and its own GPU.

The latter replaces the Imagination graphics chips Apple was using until very recently. It’s a no compromise exchange: Apple promises these three-core chips will deliver 30 percent better performance for less energy than the six-core iPhone 7 GPU.

The company is also developing its own version of the Qi standard, capable of intelligently powering three devices at once. This will be what drives the AirPower product Apple announced with the iPhones X and 8 and is expected to appear next year.

Young hearts run free

At heart, Apple’s devices are deeply proprietary systems. They use open standards where these make sense, but the company is quite happy to develop unique solutions where it thinks those make more sense.

The overwhelming majority of Apple users are very happy the company works this way — just look at the customer satisfaction surveys and its growing services business.

The roots of its decision to invest in silicon design must surely date back to just a few years ago when its Mac platform began falling behind the competition significantly in terms of processor performance.

The AIM Alliance Apple depended upon to develop its chips was failing to keep pace with the industry, putting the platform at a huge disadvantage. What did Apple do? It moved to OS X, switched to Intel, the Mac market grew, the iPod opened up new doors and the iPhone changed everything.

But Apple learned its lesson: As Apple CEO Tim Cook put it in 2009: “We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.”

Heart of glass

As the smartphone wars intensify, Apple faces opposition from all quarters and many of those who oppose it are huge multinational manufacturers who can mass produce cheap products at the kind of subsidy the company can only dream of.

To fight back, Apple must constantly invest in both software and hardware design, but it has also realized it must build proprietary hardware competitors cannot imitate.

What is the most important hardware component in any computer device? I don’t think it is the the chassis, display or even the memory — it’s the silicon that makes hardware and software work together.

These processors stand at the intersection between software/hardware design and the creative needs of the computer user. Apple purchased PA Semi in 2008.

How Apple views processor design was partially explained by Apple’s SVP of Hardware Technologies, Johny Srouji, who told Mashable:

“This [chip design] is something we started 10 years ago, designing our own silicon, because that’s the best way to truly customize something that’s uniquely optimized for Apple hardware and software.”

He also confirmed that development of the current A-series chip began three years ago.

Heart of the Sun

Think about that for a second.

What Apple is telling us there is that the processor inside the iPhone X, iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus — a processor that is already faster than the one inside some current MacBooks (at least on paper) — was visualized three years ago.

Now ask yourself what to expect from the A14 chip in three years time. How fast do you expect that to be? How powerful? How low powered will those chips be? What will they be capable of? What won’t they be capable of?

If (as I suspect) Apple’s processor design teams continue to iterate major performance improvements on an annual basis, then I do wonder what applications you will still need a PC for.

After all, as mobile processor performance catches up with desktop/notebook performance, won't the list of applications that are not supported by these chips surely shrink?

However, with so much importance attached to the future of Apple’s processor design teams, it’s hardly a surprise they chose to base themselves in their own (highly secure?) private building in the center of Apple Park.

They don't need any interruptions. 

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Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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