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Interview with Apple’s hardware technology chief: We are not a chip company

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Apple is pushing veterans like Intel out of its hardware with its own chips. But you can’t and don’t want to do everything yourself, according to Apple in an interview with Mac & i.

M2, A16, S8, H2 – these are just a few of Apple’s in-house chips and the list of “Apple Silicon” is getting longer and longer. The Apple chips drive practically the entire product range of the manufacturer, which includes iPhones, iPads, watches and AirPods, most recently also most Macs. Apple has turned the classic model of the PC and smartphone industry on its head, after all, the company keeps the chips for itself.

Apple’s chip development is not new territory: the company laid the foundations under Steve Jobs with the takeover of the start-up PA Semi in 2008, which specialized in highly efficient PowerPC processors. Building up chip expertise takes a lot of time, stressed Apple’s hardware technology chief Hope Giles in an interview with Mac & i. “It doesn’t just happen overnight.”

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Apple started early on to consider the chips as a common “platform and building blocks” in order to gradually design them for different product categories, from smartphones to tablets and smartwatches to notebooks and desktop Macs. Each of the devices is subject to different restrictions, for example in terms of size and shape, which should be taken into account in the design process of the chips. “We can make decisions for each product, such as whether we need fewer GPU cores, more CPU cores and maybe less power. Or we reduce the bandwidth so that ultimately each chip is optimized for the respective package form,” explained Hope with reference to the fanless MacBook Air. “The list of ingredients we can choose from has expanded dramatically,” added Apple’s chief product marketing officer, Bob Borchers.

What has remained at Apple to this day is a “manic focus on performance per watt”, according to Borchers, which “pays off in many ways”. Energy efficiency not only makes it possible to get more performance and longer battery life out of compact devices, but ultimately ensures more sustainability through lower power consumption. “I think people sometimes don’t see this connection,” says Borchers. Pure performance alone is therefore not the focus: “We don’t design our chips for benchmarks,” says Hope – you look at benchmarks, but they “don’t tell the whole story”.

Last but not least, the in-house systems-on-chip (SoCs) and systems-in-package (SIP) are a clear competitive advantage for Apple. Competitors like Microsoft and Google are also aware of this. In contrast to Apple, however, the operating system manufacturers find it difficult to alienate their hardware partners and must therefore act with caution. Nevertheless, Microsoft is apparently building its own processor team for the Surface hardware. Google puts its own Tensor SoC in the latest Pixel smartphone, which is optimized for machine learning.

In the form of the “Neural Engine”, this area has long been playing an increasingly important role on Apple’s SoCs and is used, for example, for computing tasks relating to computer-aided photography and image analysis.

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The Neural Engine is an “investment in the future” and allows as many calculations as possible to be carried out locally on the devices. “One of the great challenges of machine learning is that the models are very large and computationally intensive, but more and more data can remain on the device,” says Borchers. Apple is thus fulfilling its obligation to provide more data protection.

Apple continues to use third-party manufacturers for important chips: The satellite emergency call for the iPhone 14 and 14 Pro, which will be launched in November, uses the integrated X65 modem from Qualcomm. The hardware is only a small part of such a service, restricted Borchers. Apple has developed its own software that helps users to align the iPhone to a satellite to transmit an emergency SMS. Since many emergency call centers in the USA are not designed for SMS, Apple must also ensure that emergency calls sent via satellite are forwarded. To implement such services and ensure it’s not just a “gimmick,” Hope is working with an “ecosystem of external partners.”

At the same time, Apple is “moving more and more technology under its own roof,” as Hope admits. “We’re looking at where we can differentiate ourselves and what chips we can’t get anywhere else.” The most prominent victim of the strategy is chip veteran Intel: 14 years after the big Mac switch to x86 processors, Apple started replacing them with its own M chips in 2020. The result is, for example, significantly faster and longer-running MacBooks. Only the professional tower Mac Pro is still based on Intel’s Xeon processors, but it should also switch to the ARM-based chips. With Apple’s acquisition of Intel’s modem division in 2019, it is already becoming apparent that the company is also interested in its own baseband. Apple supplier Qualcomm has already publicly forecast the loss of much of its iPhone business from 2023.

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“But we don’t want to do everything ourselves,” Hope said. “We can do a lot of things ourselves, but we also know the limits of what makes sense to us”. But only Apple knows where these limits lie – and as usual keeps it to itself. In any case, the company does not want to be seen as a chip company: The silicon is the “heart”, but Apple remains a product company.

  • You can read detailed tests of the new Apple hardware and over 60 practical tips for macOS 13, iOS 16 and watchOS 9 in Mac & i 5/2022. The new issue will be published on October 6th.

 

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