Apple seeking silicon wizards as it preps to fully customize A7 chip for 2013 iOS devices

Speedier, smaller and even more power-efficient mobile chip designs are already in the works for future iOS devices so it comes as little surprise that Apple remains on a hiring spree, seeking talented semiconductor experts left and right.

As you know, Apple’s current system-on-a-chip (SoC) modules found inside iPhones, iPods and iPads typically pack in several processing and graphic cores, in addition to the memory controller, RAM and the essential control logic – all onto a single piece of silicon die.

A new job posting reveals Apple is looking for an “SoC Modelling Architect / Lead” who will be tasked with managing its in-house team which designs next-generation processors for iOS devices…

I know, Apple’s been hiring silicon wizards for ages, but bear with me here.

The job posting, discovered by TechCrunch and first spotted in May, seeks someone with at least ten years experience in SoC design and microarchitecture experience with focus on performance modeling including management or lead experience.

In this unique and highly visible role, you will be at the center of a chip design effort interfacing with all disciplines, with a critical impact on getting functional products to millions of customers quickly.

Ideal candidate will get to work as a member of Apple’s SoC Micro-Architecture team and will be charged with leading an engineering team comprised of performance modelers, architects in modeling and exploring performance and power aspects of SoCs, with responsibilities including all aspects of performance and power modeling of SoC.

Apple is of course hiring people on a daily basis, but given the magnitude and responsibilities of this particular job posting, it could signal a change in direction for its mobile chip strides.

Another possibility: perhaps Apple is indeed moving away from Intel and is adamant to design its own silicon to power at least a next-generation portable MacBook lineup.

A Bloomberg Businessweek article published this morning suggested as much.

Apple has also deliberated over moving away from Intel chips in the Macintosh, say two people familiar with these discussions.

Such a shift would be difficult and isn’t imminent, though it would allow Apple to further distinguish its laptops and desktops from competitors that run Intel’s chips and Microsoft’s Windows software.

Japanese blog Macotakara reported in May of last year that Apple was prototyping an A5-powered MacBook Air with Thunderbolt I/O.

Why an ARM-based MacBook would make sense?

Battery life.

Your iPad takes you through your work day with ease.

Your MacBook Air does not, the fact I increasingly find annoying as the iPad’s ten-hour battery life only emphasizes the problem.

Switching from Intel chips (not very efficient) to the ARM architecture (the most power efficient platform there is) would make possible a MacBook with all-day long performance.

The A6 chip floorplan, courtesy of Chipworks.

Apple is of course using ARM’s CPU platform in its mobile chips.

Our younger readers may be unaware that Apple was an early investor in ARM Holdings back in the 1990s as it was looking to develop a power efficient processor for the Newton handheld. Apple later unloaded its shares, but the original and flexible ARM design Apple helped create is now the pinnacle of the vast majority of mobile devices.

Ain’t it funny how life works?

Here’s former Apple CEO John Sculley talking how ARM came to be.

Rather than use SoC modules made by Qualcomm, Intel, Texas Instruments and Nvidia, often found inside other smartphones and tablets, Apple bought chip experts PA Semi, Intrinsity, Anobit and AuthenTec to bolster its internal silicon team.

So far, Apple’s engineering team designed the A4, A5 and A6 chips by using CPU/GPU blueprints from British-based fabless semiconductor makers ARM Holdings plc and Imagination Technologies Group plc., where Apple and Intel are both investors.

The A6 chip which debuted on the iPhone 5 shows a level of customization not seen in the previous A4 and A5 processors as it boasts fully Apple-customized ARMv7 computing platform for power and performance efficiency.

Samsung, the world’s second-largest chip maker, has traditionally been manufacturing Apple’s mobile chips in its sophisticated 32-nanometer plant in Austin, Texas.

Maybe Apple now needs more silicon experts to help with a rumored transition to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which has its headquarters and main operations in the Hsinchu Science Park in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

The sometimes-accurate DigiTimes recently reported that Apple and TSMC are “about ready to enter the design-in phase” , with Apple looking to tap TSMC’s 16-nanometer double-gate FinFET process.

Apple was previously thought to be moving chip production to TSMC, but yield issues and manufacturing difficulties pushed back those plans.

This is Samsung’s Austin, Texas plant where Apple’s mobile chips are being made

As Apple is working to move away from its current chip manufacturer, a major change in both fabbing process and chip architecture appears quite possible.

Such a decision isn’t without pitfalls: moving to a different fabbing process represents a major brain transplant, even if you don’t mess with chip architecture.

On the flip side, customization pays off.

In case you didn’t notice, the iPhone 5 matches and in some instances exceeds battery life of the iPhone 4/4S – despite running a two times faster chip, 4G LTE networking and a taller display with more pixels. That’s because Apple heavily customized the ARM Cortex-A15 CPU core to its liking.

Whether or not the A7 chip (presumably debuting on a 2013 iPhone) proves an iteration of the existing design or a completely fresh start remains to be seen. One thing is certain: these chips are getting more and more powerful while consuming less and less energy.

At some point, power-hungry desktop chips won’t make any sense except for ninja PCs designed heavy lifting.

In my view, deciding that Apple would be far better served by designing its own chips rather than use off-the-shelf components readily available to its rivals was perhaps the most important strategic call Steve Jobs made in regard to iPhones, iPods and iPads.

Your thoughts?