This week saw Apple hiring not one, but two former ATI/AMD chip designers. Just one would be enough to arouse speculation, but two in the same week is being seen by many, including the Wall Street Journal, as nothing short of a public declaration that they do indeed intend to start building their own chips.
Note also that these hires coincide with Mark Papermaster’s official return to work at Apple, which was delayed owing to the legal settlement between them and his former employer, IBM. Papermaster was instrumental in developing the PowerPC architecture with IBM.
One of the new hires this week was Raja Koduri, who was formerly chief technology officer at AMD in their graphics group. The other person brought on board, Bob Drebin, held the very same title before Koduri. Aside from these two high-profile hires, Apple also has ongoing active job postings for various chip-related positions, including some that actually admit to involving “testing the functional correctness of Apple silicon.”
The WSJ article also reminds readers that Apple acquired chip maker P.A. Semi last year. They suggest that the chip company was then tasked with designing a brand new, more energy-efficient ARM processor for the iPhone (which has terrible battery life, as anyone who has one can attest), and that the new hires represent a continuation and extension of this strategy.
But what reason could Apple have for wanting to develop their own chips? After all, outsourcing is more cost-effective, and a preventative measure against corporate bloat. In Apple’s case, however, bringing the development of that core component of their computers and media players in-house might actually make more sense. The WSJ points out that in building their own chips, Apple (which is notoriously secretive) would have to share far less information with chip suppliers. Third-party suppliers are probably the source of most of Apple’s early product leaks, as reports from DigiTimes and other Asian news sources repeatedly indicate.
Internal chip development would also stop the flow of information from Apple to chip makers, and through them to other computer/electronic device manufacturers. It’s basically the same reason Willy Wonka used Oompa Loompah labor, which was to hamper corporate espionage. Don’t get your hopes up for catchy, cautionary song and dance numbers, though, since it looks like Apple is still limited to boring old human workers.
If Apple is working to develop their own chips, they’re going about it the right way: hiring lots of experience, and not rushing a bad or underdeveloped product out the door. The Journal expects a 2010 date for the introduction of any proprietary Apple chips, but don’t be surprised if it takes longer than that for desktops and notebooks to get Apple-designed brains.