Mark Gurman: Apple chip development is getting spread too thin

"Combined with supply bottlenecks, the focus [on Mac chips] may have contributed to slower progress for the iPhone, Apple Watch and even cellular modems."

From Gurman's Power On column, posted Sunday to registered Bloomberg Technology subscribers:

Apple Inc.’s in-house Mac chips have certainly shaken up the processor industry for personal computers, driving sales of its own desktops and laptops and pushing competitors to search for new solutions...

In order to get there, Apple’s silicon engineering group had to shift many of its testing, development and production resources to Mac chips. The question is whether that affected its other products. Combined with supply bottlenecks, the focus may have contributed to slower progress for the iPhone, Apple Watch and even cellular modems.

This year, for the first time since Apple starting designing its own processors, the company won’t be upgrading the chip inside of its main new iPhone. This fall’s entry-level iPhone 14 models will retain the A15 chip from last year, with only the Pro version getting a new A16 processor.

And the Apple Watch is expected to retain the same general processing performance for the third year in a row—something that’s never happened before either. I reported recently that the S8 chip inside of the Apple Watch Series 8 will match the 2021 S7 chip in performance, which was roughly in line with the S6 chip from 2020.

The annual performance increases for Apple’s iPhone processors also have slowed in recent years...

The company also has apparently struggled with its initiative to develop a cellular modem, a move that would replace a component from Qualcomm Inc. Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo recently said that Apple’s modem project has “failed” for the time being. I’ve heard that the company has been struggling with its modem prototypes overheating over the past year or so...

Some engineers say the group is run with military precision, making it a demanding place to work. Though Apple’s chip operation has continued to grow around the world, the team has lost many engineers over the past few years—at a level that’s higher than normal attrition.

My take: Johny Srouji is famous for his crash development programs. I suspect he runs a taut shop.

From Brad Stone, Adam Satariano, and Gwen Ackerman's "The Most Important Apple Executive You’ve Never Heard Of," from Businessweek Feb. 18, 2016:

At the center of all this is Srouji, 51, an Israeli who joined Apple after jobs at Intel and IBM. He’s compact, he’s intense, and he speaks Arabic, Hebrew, and French. His English is lightly accented and, when the subject has anything to do with Apple, nonspecific bordering on koanlike. “Hard is good. Easy is a waste of time,” he says when asked about increasingly thin iPhone designs. “The chip architects at Apple are artists, the engineers are wizards,” he answers another question. He’ll elaborate a bit when the topic is general. “When designers say, ‘This is hard,’ ” he says, “my rule of thumb is if it’s not gated by physics, that means it’s hard but doable.”

8 Comments

  1. David Emery said:
    More Apple FUD clickbait. How would one measure/assess “too thin?” We have a bunch of assertions about unreleased products, which are bogus to begin with. Then we have assertions about what “should have been” in those products based on no particular demonstrated technical basis about the underlying technology and the costs of producing same.

    The one area where there might actually be a case would be Apple vs Qualcomm modems, building on the expected transition to Apple-owned designs. But modem design is not the same as CPU design (although they share a lot of similar characteristics) and it’s quite possible that a future Apple modem chip re-factors the processing between the analog radios and ‘software defined radio’ functions done in the CPU cores. But I’d rather Apple take another year to get this right, than to meet external talking head deadlines.

    11
    July 3, 2022
    • Fred Stein said:
      Just speculation…

      Apple may have planned to use next generation process from TSMC for this fall. But it has apparently been delayed. Next gen process is far more valuable in iPhones and Watches because of improved power and performance than for Macs and iPads.

      When Apple and TSMC deliver chips with next gen process in mobile devices, it will blow open the doors. And most analysts will say ‘just incremental.’

      3
      July 3, 2022
      • David Emery said:
        That would make sense. Production (including yields) is an often unappreciated side of high tech systems. But with the big impact of supply chains, people in general are a lot more aware of this as a problem than they were 2 years ago… Isn’t TSMC ramping up 3nm production?

        1
        July 3, 2022
  2. Fred Stein said:
    Love this statement, “.. if it’s not gated by physics, that means it’s hard but doable.”

    Chip geometries are near the limits of physics, the dimensions of atoms, literally. Chip makers and chip equipment makers are exploring new 3D processes. They won’t be gated (pun) by physics. But this is very hard, very very hard.

    0
    July 3, 2022
  3. John Konopka said:
    The fact that the Apple Watch or entry level iPhones are not seeing major processor upgrades is noteworthy, but not necessarily a criticism. Apple sells a functioning product, not a processor. If the overall product performs as needed then why not keep the same processor? I’ll probably get a new Watch this year or next. I couldn’t tell you without checking which SOC I have now or which one is in the next product. The device operates well enough so I’m happy using it. If the next one adds a few sensors I’ll like it better.

    1
    July 3, 2022
  4. Michael Goldfeder said:
    Unless Apple comes out with a flying car, jet pack iPhone, or AR/VR glasses that transform into a flying carpet, then Apple is in trouble.

    IIRC, “Gregg” stopped by to address the misinformation on the Qualcomm modem issue earlier this week and reminded everyone that the settlement made in 2019 was through 2024, with an option for 2 extra years.

    With that reality as a backdrop, it’s obvious that Apple is still on schedule for when the contract expires to vertically integrate their own modem into the iPhone.

    But Gurman always comes out with his article based on speculation, hysteria, and no real facts.

    2
    July 3, 2022
  5. Greg Lippert said:
    Apple is not updating iPhone processors this year. Huh? Next sentence says they are in their Pro Models. Sounds like an an upgraded processor to me.

    Maybe the chip upgrade is to help differentiate the Pro vs Non Pro. And hold down costs during this period of economic uncertainty.

    1
    July 4, 2022

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