Apple reportedly wants to design its own Mac processors, iPhone modem chips & more

Apple is looking to accelerate proprietary semiconductor development in order to differentiate itself from competition even further with products such as ARM-based processors for Mac notebooks, in-house designed iPhone modems and more.

A report Friday by the Japanese outlet Nikkei, citing analysts and industry sources in Asia, suggests that Apple is keen to expand its semiconductor capabilities further. Specifically, sources say Tim Cook & Co. are interested in “building core processors for notebooks, modem chips for iPhones and a chip that integrates touch, fingerprint and display driver functions.”

To that end, Apple’s apparently hired engineers from Taiwan’s leading display-driver chip designers Novatek and panel maker AU Optronics, according to an industry source.

While it currently dual-sources iPhone modem chips from Intel and Qualcomm, Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Mark Li believes that “Apple has invested in research and development for baseband modem chips responsible for mobile communication.”

An excerpt from the article:

Li added it is was unlikely that Apple could quickly roll out such components within two years. Modem chips have a very high threshold to develop and need to fulfill requirements of different operators worldwide.

A veteran chip industry executive estimates that it would require more than a minimum one thousand engineers to work on such a project.

Earlier this year, the iPhone maker poached top Qualcomm modem chip engineer Esin Terzioglu to lead its wireless system-on-a-chip project. It would not be surprising that Apple develops its own modem chip, especially considering that Samsung’s in-house designed Exynos already integrates modem hardware.

Two industry sources added that Apple is also trying to cut its dependence on Intel when it comes to notebook chips and instead build those using ARM architecture.

Of course, Apple has been designing its own chips for years now.

It has designed iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch processors, wireless chips for AirPods and dedicated fingerprint silicon powering Touch ID in iOS devices and the new MacBook Pro. Those chips are mass manufactured using third-party foundry services from the likes of Samsung and TSMC. The company does not plan to operate its own semiconductor production facilities, industry sources said.

Research firm IC Insights ranked Apple the world’s fourth chip design house by revenue at the end of 2016, trailing only Qualcomm, Broadcom and Taiwan’s MediaTek.

“No matter if you are Apple or Google, in the era of artificial intelligence you will need to develop your own algorithms and software to fit your new applications and to build up your ecosystems that have as many partners in as many domains as possible,” said Shirley Tsai, an analyst at research company IDC.

Apple’s shown what can be achieved when you design highly optimized chips and the software around them, especially with the latest A11 Bionic chip in the new iPhones.

The A-series chips have allowed Apple to differentiate itself from others—hence why Android devices need more RAM and CPU cores to match the smoothness of iOS—and this is going to be even more important in the age of artificial intelligence.

Apple is already headed in that direction: the Neural engine in the A11 Bionic chip is its first dedicated dual-core CPU highly optimized for a specific set of machine learning algorithms.

A11 Bionic benchmarks courtesy of Tom’s Guide.

We’ve said before that an Apple-designed ARM processor for Mac notebooks is not a question of if, but when. While Apple’s own chips for high-end Mac desktops are not on the horizon yet, the A11 Bionic benchmarks have demonstrated that Apple could soon unveil a notebook powered by a proprietary ARM-based CPU design.

Such a machine would benefit from a highly power-optimized ARM architecture, allowing for even thinner notebooks that run longer on a single charge than today’s MacBooks. At the time of this writing, Apple was advertising more than 200 chip-related positions on its website.