Apple pulls back the curtain on its secretive chip development operation

Posted:
in Future Apple Hardware edited February 2016
The engineering team responsible for the custom silicon that powers hundreds of millions of Apple's iOS devices is the latest beneficiary of the company's relatively newfound openness.


Srouji in one of Apple's chip testing centers, via Bloomberg


"The airplane was taking off, and I was building the runway just in time," Apple SVP of Hardware Technologies Jojny Srouji said of his group's efforts to get the A4 -- Apple's first in-house mobile CPU -- ready to ship in the iPhone 4. That sentence is emblematic of the team's mission to push the silicon envelope, shown in detail for the first time by Bloomberg.

Srouji's reports number in the hundreds, mostly split between Apple's Cupertino headquarters and research and development facilities in Israel. A-series chips are the group's primary focus, but Srouji hints that everything from new battery technology to in-house Wi-Fi modems could be part of its portfolio.

Apple's mobile silicon ambitions extend back as far as 2007, when the original iPhone shipped with numerous technical limitations thanks to the mish-mash of components.

"Steve [Jobs] came to the conclusion that the only way for Apple to really differentiate and deliver something truly unique and truly great, you have to own your own silicon," Srouji said. "You have to control and own it."
The iPad Pro was initially slated to ship last spring with the A8X, and only gained the more powerful A9X after delays in other parts of the project.
Srouji -- himself an Israeli and a graduate of the famous Technion -- was brought in from Intel to build Apple's processor team by then-hardware chief Bob Mansfield, and now sits at the crossroads of the company's mobile ambitions. His group occupies a space in the critical path for nearly every part of the development process, from industrial design to software.

To make it work, Apple operates a smattering of secret, unmarked laboratories around Silicon Valley. In some, custom Mac Minis stress test new chip designs to ferret out any weaknesses; others are de facto datacenters where next-generation chips are made available for software teams to test against.

This expansive setup illustrates Apple's commitment to being best in class, but Srouji stresses that it's not always enough to throw money at the problem.

"I run it very tight," Srouji said when asked about the team's budget. "I truly believe that engineers will do their best when they are constrained by either money, tools, or resources. If you become sloppy because you have too much money, that's the wrong mindset."
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 29
    I remember that Israeli purchase and thinking Apple are up to something.  This is a great example of how Apple acquire companies to add to its own expertise.  That purchase and other related ones have changed mobile computing in a massive way.
    cornchip
  • Reply 2 of 29
    SoliSoli Posts: 10,035member
    "Steve [Jobs] came to the conclusion that the only way for Apple to really differentiate and deliver something truly unique and truly great, you have to own your own silicon," Srouji said. "You have to control and own it."

    1) I'm a little surprised by this. Not that I don't believe that Jobs always wanted and knew that controlling the the HW and SW was key to truly great products, but I would have assumed it was other employees that would have finally done the convincing for ARM and PA Semi.

    2) Wishful thinking or is this another piece of the puzzle that Apple will eventually support ARM on their desktop OS?

  • Reply 3 of 29
    If only the software got the same level of attention.
    bdkennedy1002otterfish
  • Reply 4 of 29
    stubb said:
    If only the software got the same level of attention.
    Who says it doesn't?
  • Reply 5 of 29

    Soli said:
    "Steve [Jobs] came to the conclusion that the only way for Apple to really differentiate and deliver something truly unique and truly great, you have to own your own silicon," Srouji said. "You have to control and own it."

    1) I'm a little surprised by this. Not that I don't believe that Jobs always wanted and knew that controlling the the HW and SW was key to truly great products, but I would have assumed it was other employees that would have finally done the convincing for ARM and PA Semi.

    2) Wishful thinking or is this another piece of the puzzle that Apple will eventually support ARM on their desktop OS?

    Oh I'm sure the media and Wall Street will read all kinds of things into this profile. Some are already convinced Apple is working on an ARM Mac this will just convince them even more.
  • Reply 6 of 29
    stubb said:
    If only the software got the same level of attention.
    Who says it doesn't?
    It may. I own everything Apple and have for a long time like many here. I feel the software has made huge stride in some areas but has also fallen short in others.
    afrodricornchip
  • Reply 7 of 29
    fracfrac Posts: 480member

    Soli said:

    1) I'm a little surprised by this. Not that I don't believe that Jobs always wanted and knew that controlling the the HW and SW was key to truly great products, but I would have assumed it was other employees that would have finally done the convincing for ARM and PA Semi.

    2) Wishful thinking or is this another piece of the puzzle that Apple will eventually support ARM on their desktop OS?

    Oh I'm sure the media and Wall Street will read all kinds of things into this profile. Some are already convinced Apple is working on an ARM Mac this will just convince them even more.
    Surprised? I'd be dumbfounded if Apple wasn't running several skunk works with this in mind, already. In fact, it would be a failure of mind blowing proportions given their silicon track record to date.
    Solicornchip
  • Reply 8 of 29
    Soli said:
    "Steve [Jobs] came to the conclusion that the only way for Apple to really differentiate and deliver something truly unique and truly great, you have to own your own silicon," Srouji said. "You have to control and own it."

    2) Wishful thinking or is this another piece of the puzzle that Apple will eventually support ARM on their desktop OS?

    The unique value to ARM is how well it performs in power-constrained mobile devices. That advantage is lost on desktop devices along with the needful Intel compatibility. It would take some new puzzle-piece to fall into place to make moving to ARM with OSX compelling.
    afrodriai46
  • Reply 9 of 29
    From the Article:

    It also lags behind Samsung in some areas of chip development, such as adding a modem to the central processor to conserve space and power and transitioning from a 20-nanometer chip design to a more compact 16-nanometer format, which means even more transistors can be crammed into a smaller space. “If I was just arguing hardware and not Apple’s marketing, I would say Samsung has the best processor,” says Mike Demler, a senior mobile chips analyst at the Linley Group, a technology consulting firm in Silicon Valley.
    And how did Samsung's more advanced processes fair against TSMC's processes for the A9? I guess they have to find something bad to say.

    "Samsung has the best processor"? I guess it has the better list of specs? It certainly didn't show it where it matters in real life use.

    ai46Rayz2016argonaut
  • Reply 10 of 29
    wizard69wizard69 Posts: 13,377member
    Soli said:
    "Steve [Jobs] came to the conclusion that the only way for Apple to really differentiate and deliver something truly unique and truly great, you have to own your own silicon," Srouji said. "You have to control and own it."

    1) I'm a little surprised by this. Not that I don't believe that Jobs always wanted and knew that controlling the the HW and SW was key to truly great products, but I would have assumed it was other employees that would have finally done the convincing for ARM and PA Semi.

    2) Wishful thinking or is this another piece of the puzzle that Apple will eventually support ARM on their desktop OS?

    1. I wouldn't be surprised, First off Jobs was the head of the company and as such it was his responsibility to set direction. However direction isn't set until the input of many others is considered. As I've mentioned many times before silicon today is what the printed circuit board was in the 1980's. It is the place where you innovate these days.

     2. It really depends upon Intel or possibly AMD at this point. If these guys can't deliver the low power / high performance chips required eventually Apple will have no choice but to do their own silicon for the Macs. Both Intel and AMD have screwed up badly in the last couple of years so who knows. By the way Apple could go i86 in a custom chip.
    edited February 2016 Solicornchip
  • Reply 11 of 29
    wizard69wizard69 Posts: 13,377member
    Soli said:
    "Steve [Jobs] came to the conclusion that the only way for Apple to really differentiate and deliver something truly unique and truly great, you have to own your own silicon," Srouji said. "You have to control and own it."

    2) Wishful thinking or is this another piece of the puzzle that Apple will eventually support ARM on their desktop OS?

    The unique value to ARM is how well it performs in power-constrained mobile devices. That advantage is lost on desktop devices along with the needful Intel compatibility. It would take some new puzzle-piece to fall into place to make moving to ARM with OSX compelling.
    The need for i86 compatibility isn't anywhere near as strong as it was in the past.


     As far as being power constrained, everything Apple markets is power constrained. This isn't always a good thing but the reality is lower power Intel products has allowed Apple to innovate with respect to platform size. Sometimes Apple shrinks products too fast thus impacting performance.


    Totally unrelated but this new forums software sucks.   I mean it really SUCKS.   Did the AI staff even try this crap out before the conversion?  
    edited February 2016 Solicornchipdamn_its_hot
  • Reply 12 of 29
    Why did Apple give access to notorious anti-Apple troll Bloomberg? Why not Apple cheerleader Mossberg or at least largely neutral Phillip Elmer DeWitt?

    I'm sure Apple has their reasons, but why reward them and their slime factory with clicks?
    edited February 2016
  • Reply 13 of 29
    fallenjtfallenjt Posts: 4,053member
    wizard69 said:
    The unique value to ARM is how well it performs in power-constrained mobile devices. That advantage is lost on desktop devices along with the needful Intel compatibility. It would take some new puzzle-piece to fall into place to make moving to ARM with OSX compelling.
    The need for i86 compatibility isn't anywhere near as strong as it was in the past.


     As far as being power constrained, everything Apple markets is power constrained. This isn't always a good thing but the reality is lower power Intel products has allowed Apple to innovate with respect to platform size. Sometimes Apple shrinks products too fast thus impacting performance.


    Totally unrelated but this new forums software sucks.   I mean it really SUCKS.   Did the AI staff even try this crap out before the conversion?  
    Yup and I hate this new forum format.
  • Reply 14 of 29
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 3,181member
    Oh I'm sure the media and Wall Street will read all kinds of things into this profile. Some are already convinced Apple is working on an ARM Mac this will just convince them even more.
    I'm sure Apple already has an aMac. Close to 20 years ago, IBM had an in-house PowerPC notebook computer that ran Windows, OS/2 and Mac OS X.
    cornchipflaneurargonaut
  • Reply 15 of 29
    joshajosha Posts: 901member
    stubb said:
    If only the software got the same level of attention.
    Both must be developed in tune;   together.
    IBM knew that!

    Today there are still examples of inferior products where the SW and HDW aren't in tune.
  • Reply 16 of 29
    foggyhillfoggyhill Posts: 4,767member
    Soli said:

    2) Wishful thinking or is this another piece of the puzzle that Apple will eventually support ARM on their desktop OS?

    The unique value to ARM is how well it performs in power-constrained mobile devices. That advantage is lost on desktop devices along with the needful Intel compatibility. It would take some new puzzle-piece to fall into place to make moving to ARM with OSX compelling.
    It the lowest power part of their laptop range, were windows compatibility is not much of an issue, I could see it.
    If they sold that laptop that lasted for example 12h for $100-$150 less  (since their part would be cheaper) and was more power running native apps than the comparable Intel machine; there would be takers.
     
    Wouldn't take much to transform the Ipad pro into a laptop and I'm sure they've done it somewhere.

    I got the feeling this is coming quite soon, possibly 2017 with say a tricore A10X variant on 10nm silicon.

    By that time, the difference in performance with Intel in the thermal envelope will skew in Apple's favor.
  • Reply 17 of 29
    SoliSoli Posts: 10,035member
    Soli said:

    2) Wishful thinking or is this another piece of the puzzle that Apple will eventually support ARM on their desktop OS?

    The unique value to ARM is how well it performs in power-constrained mobile devices. That advantage is lost on desktop devices along with the needful Intel compatibility. It would take some new puzzle-piece to fall into place to make moving to ARM with OSX compelling.
    I'm confused by your use of "power-constrained" and your qualifier of "mobile devices." Nearly every device Apple makes is a mobile device, and of the very few that aren't (iMac, Mac Pro, AEBS/TC, Apple TV) they are ALL power-constrained.

    Have you seen AnandTech's review of the iPad Pro? Now compare that to the performance and TDP of the 12" MacBook which uses a very expensive Intel processor, and is expensive notebook for its capabilities, as well. 
  • Reply 18 of 29
    josujosu Posts: 217member
    stubb said:
    If only the software got the same level of attention.
    You have the explanation in the article itself, software is fixable by an update, hardware is not, so you need to have extreme care with it to do it right at first time. Well seems is not in the AI excerpt, but in the Macrumors is.
  • Reply 19 of 29
    josujosu Posts: 217member

    cpsro said:
    Oh I'm sure the media and Wall Street will read all kinds of things into this profile. Some are already convinced Apple is working on an ARM Mac this will just convince them even more.
    I'm sure Apple already has an aMac. Close to 20 years ago, IBM had an in-house PowerPC notebook computer that ran Windows, OS/2 and Mac OS X.
    Apple had a Mac that run on Intel well before the switch to them. 

    I'm with you, sooner or later Apple will leave Intel to go all in house A processors. 
    cornchipargonaut
  • Reply 20 of 29
    josujosu Posts: 217member

    Why did Apple give access to notorious anti-Apple troll Bloomberg? Why not Apple cheerleader Mossberg or at least largely neutral Phillip Elmer DeWitt?

    I'm sure Apple has their reasons, but why reward them and their slime factory with clicks?
    Because you have to get your enemy closer.
    cornchip
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