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When the Chips Are Up

The history of chip design is incredible -- religious, even

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Bloomberg Businessweek has a profile of the executive manager who oversees Apple’s secretive microchip development wing. He’s an Israeli Arab Christian named Johny Srouji from Haifa. He doesn’t say much, and Apple doesn’t give much away, so the article of necessity is industry background and personal history of Srouji.

Apple isn’t completely in charge of its own destiny. It remains in many ways a prisoner of its supply chain. Displays come from Samsung, and cellular modems from Qualcomm. Samsung and TSMC, based in Taiwan, still manufacture the processors. Apple’s ability to keep up with demand is in part dependent on the production capacity of those companies. It also lags behind Samsung in some areas of chip development, such as adding a modem to the central processor to conserve space and power and transitioning from a 20-nanometer chip design to a more compact 16-nanometer format, which means even more transistors can be crammed into a smaller space. “If I was just arguing hardware and not Apple’s marketing, I would say Samsung has the best processor,” says Mike Demler, a senior mobile chips analyst at the Linley Group, a technology consulting firm in Silicon Valley.

But given that much of the Mac line is on Intel processors, and Apple is releasing “iPads for business,” there must be a plan in place to drop Apple’s dependency on Intel processors (that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen; there just must be a plan in place). What will it be like when everyone has to recompile their software to run on the new superior “Lucky A13” processors on their MacPad Maxis in 2021, or suffer to see it run it at half-speed in “x86 Emulation Mode.” Premillennials (i.e. the rest of us) will remember the Mac’s painful transition from 68000 processor to the supposedly miraculous PowerPC chip, followed later by the transition/concession to Intel. So many emulation modes, so many slow apps, so many weird little environments. Brace ourselves for more fun! The web doesn’t have this problem but the web also makes it hard to vertically integrate your platform and achieve lock-in. Google’s making its own chips, too.

One day we’ll all be able to tell the story of how we survived the Apple/Google war. The survivors will post it to their Facebook walls.

Chip design is, by all accounts, unbelievably hard. When Intel was making early processors, some of the engineers literally found god. There are great stories of chip development — here, from a panel at the Computer History Museum in 2008, with Intel engineers:

Gene Hill: Okay, you may not want to include this in the video tape. But I myself am a devout Christian and I had always prayed for the design projects. I had prayed for the 8051 and it came out very successful. I prayed for the 286, and it came out an ugly duckling.

Jim Slager: We needed your prayers.

Gene Hill: So I was actually praying, and I was saying, what’s up? If there is a God and he influences things, why is this seemingly uncorrelated? And a verse in the Bible came out; it says you have not because you ask not. Well check that one off, I always ask. And it says, and because you ask with the wrong motives. So I said what is the right motive to pray for a design project, and what eventually came to me was that God would be glorified and that jobs would be created. And so throughout the 386 project I prayed for it that way. And I had in mind at the time preserving the jobs on the 386. I was astounded when it came back to me at the awards ceremony where the entire room was filled with the industry, businesses that were created, jobs that were created by the 386 project. So yes, Jim, I think there was guidance going on in the 386 project. So I’ll leave it to you guys whether to include that or not.

Jim Jarrett: Anything else?

John Crawford: I actually became a Christian as a result of the 386 project.Shortly after, in 1987, and through the process of working on the project and particularly Pat Gelsinger working on me, we had a lot of interesting discussions. So one of the things I took away from the project was a newfound faith.

Chip design: So hard you literally fall into the arms of Jesus for relief.

Story published on Mar 8, 2016.