Many things make the iPhone unique, but it’s probably the software and the ecosystem around it that stand out. But to make all this software magic possible possible, there’s one component that nobody else has and that everybody tries to beat: The Apple processor.
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In a major scoop, Bloomberg Businessweek goes behind the curtain to share some secrets about one of Apple’s closely guarded secrets: The chip business that has allowed it to revolutionize the smartphone business.
The report takes us behind the scene at Cupertino, California, where Israeli-born Johny Srouji is heading the Apple chip business. Those chips — the A* and A*X models that go into iPhone and iPad, respectively — are top of the line silicon that is largely unrivaled.
And it was Steve Jobs who realized early in 2007, when the original iPhone shipped, that Apple needed to make the chip inside the iPhone. The original iPhone included components from different vendors, including elements from a Samsung chip that was used in DVD players.
“Steve came to the conclusion that the only way for Apple to really differentiate and deliver something truly unique and truly great, you have to own your own silicon,” Srouji said. “You have to control and own it.”
Bob Mansfield brought Srouji, who was a rising star at IBM at the time, to Apple. Under his supervision, Apple came up with the A4 chip first used in the iPhone 4.
“The airplane was taking off, and I was building the runway just in time,” he said about the race to get that first chip produced in time for launch. Then, in 2012, Srouji started making dedicated iPad chips, the A5X and A6X models that equipped third-gen iPads and later models.
But it’s in 2013 that the Apple chip business really shined, as the A7 that equipped the handset was the first 64-bit processor in the industry. Many criticized it as a gimmick, but they soon realized Apple had done something so unexpected that they simply had to copy.
“When we pick something,” the engineer told Bloomberg. “It’s because we think there’s a problem that nobody can do, or there is some idea that’s so unique and differentiating that the best way to do it is you have to do it yourself.”
“Hard is good. Easy is a waste of time,” he added when talking about increasingly thin iPhone designs. “
The chip architects at Apple are artists, the engineers are wizards,” Srouji said “When designers say, ‘This is hard,’ my rule of thumb is if it’s not gated by physics, that means it’s hard but doable.”
Srouji’s opinion on everything iPhone and iPad is actually very important, according to an engineer who sat on his many meetings with top Apple execs, Bloomberg reveals. “Senior managers [are] preparing extensively for presentations, because his support was critical for getting new features approved,” the report notes.
The report also reveals that the chip team, which had as many as 150 employees in April 2008 after Apple purchased P.A. Semi, puts future A* chips through extensive physical and software testing before validating them.
Apple’s chip buildings are scattered through unmarked locations in Silicon Valleys. In some rooms, future chip designs are tested for inconsistencies, and testing can go on for months before a chip gets the green light.
“We beat the silicon as much as we can,” Srouji says. “If you’re lucky and rigorous, you find the mistakes before you ship.”
Bloomberg Businessweek’s full report is available at this link.