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Apple pushes further into the SoC arena

BusinessFeatures
by Grant Brunner, 06 Dec 2012Features
Apple pushes further into the SoC arena

Texas Instruments announced earlier this year that it is getting out of the SoC market, and that sadly means a little under two thousand jobs are being cut. In response, Apple has snatched up dozens of engineers from TI’s Israel-based operation.

Not only were these engineers reportedly working on TI’s Open Multimedia Applications Platform (OMAP), but they were also working on chips including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios. As Apple continues to move into custom chip designs, this kind of expertise becomes absolutely essential to its core business.

Apple isn’t the only one moving in on TI’s SoC corpse, though. A few months ago, rumours swirled that Amazon was interested in acquiring OMAP technology. As tablets start to become a bigger business for Amazon, it makes perfect sense to move in exactly the same direction as the Cupertino behemoth.

Apple went from using stock CPUs and SoCs from other companies to making custom CPUs and whole SoCs itself in just a few generations, thanks to the purchase of PA Semi back in 2008. With part of TI’s resources, Apple will undoubtedly expand its capabilities in the next generations of SoCs. These engineers could possibly even be tasked with making the radios small enough to be crammed onto a single low-power chip in the relatively near future. That would certainly help battery life substantially, and it would give Apple quite an advantage.

Apple’s legal war with Samsung has strained relations between the two companies. Unfortunately for Apple, Samsung fabs the A5 and A6 SoCs, and there aren’t many alternatives because of the large scale needed. Rumours have been floating around that perhaps the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) would become Apple’s go-to for SoC production. Now there is even talk about Intel fabricating ARM chips for Apple, with the catch attached being that Apple would switch the iPad to x86 chips. As it stands, these have just been rumours bandied about. There hasn’t been any hard evidence pointing towards Apple’s future in the SoC space.

Since Apple has a huge war chest and is continuing to acquire expertise, it stands to reason that Apple could even open its own SoC fabs and operate them free of outside dependencies. While it would put Apple in control of its own destiny, and it does have other upsides, it is far from an ideal situation.

Apple likes to stay, wisely, in the high profit world of selling devices. Getting down to the level of component manufacturing isn’t really Apple’s wheelhouse, and has a fair amount of risk associated with it because they don’t have experience in the field. That said, if it can’t work out a satisfactory deal with another company in the coming months and years as contracts end, and new chip designs are ready for production, it might be forced into becoming its own fab whether or not it’s something the company wants to do.

The future of iOS device internals is being decided now in meetings, emails, and phone calls. We’ll soon see if the status quo of highly customised chip designs made by Apple and fabricated by Samsung remains, or if something more interesting is afoot. In any case, it’s just good to see that TI’s talented Israeli engineers won’t be going to waste. Apple continuing to push the envelope with SoCs makes the whole industry better no matter who does the fabrication.

Image Credit: AutomaticDefence

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