This week Apple unveiled a number of new MacBook Pro laptops. During the recorded Kick-off event, Apple engineers and executives made it clear that the MVPs in these new products are the chips that power them: the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. With 34 and 57 billion transistors respectively, they are the engines that drive the super-high-resolution displays of the new Mac devices, offer incredible speed and extend battery life. The laptops represent the apotheosis of a 14 year strategy that the company has transformed – literally under the hood of its products – in a massive effort to design and build its own chips. Apple is now systematically replacing microprocessors that it buys from providers such as Intel and Samsung with its own, which are optimized for the needs of Apple users. The effort has been astonishingly successful. Apple was once a company defined by design. Design is still critical at Apple, but I now think of it as a a silicon company.
A few days after the keynote, I had a rare conversation about Apple Silicon with Greg Joswiak (aka “Joz”), Senior Worldwide Marketing VP, John Ternus, Senior Hardware Engineering VP, and Johny Srouji, Senior Hardware Technology VP. I had asked Apple to contact Srouji for years. His title only suggests his status as a Chipzar at Apple. Although he has recently been in front of the camera at Apple events, he generally avoids the limelight. Srouji, an Israel-born engineer who previously worked at Intel and IBM, joined Apple in 2008 to serve on a mandate from Steve Jobs who believed the chips in the original iPhone couldn’t meet his needs. Srouji’s mission was to lead Apple in making its own silicon. The effort has been so well executed that I believe Srouji is secretly succeeding Jony Ive as the ultimate creative wizard who conjures up the secret sauce in Apple’s offerings.
Of course, Srouji won’t put up with that. After all, the playbook for Apple executives is to spend their exaggeration on Macs, iPhones and iPads, not on themselves. “Apple builds the best silicon in the world,” he says. “But I always keep in mind that Apple is first and foremost a product company. If you’re a chip designer, this is heaven because you build silicon for a company that makes products. “
Srouji is clear about the advantages of introducing his own chips as opposed to buying from a provider like Intel, which this week was unceremoniously booted by MacBook Pros in favor of the Ms. “If you are a dealer, a company that supplies many customers with standard components or silicon, you have to find the lowest common denominator – what does everyone need over many years?” He says. “We work as a team – the silicon, the hardware, the software, the industrial design, and other teams – to achieve a particular vision. If you transfer that to silicon, we have a unique opportunity and freedom because now you are designing something that is not only truly unique, but optimized for a specific product. ”In the case of the MacBook Pro, he says, he did a few years ago sat down with executives like Ternus and Craig Federighi and imagined what users could get their hands on in 2021. Everything would come from the silicon. “We sit together and say, ‘Okay, is that limited by physics? Or is it something we can go beyond? ‘ And then, when it is not controlled by physics and it is a matter of time, we think about how to build it. “
Think about it – the only caveat Apple’s chipmakers admit is the physical limit of what is possible.
Srouji stated that his journey at Apple was a conscious iteration that was built on strong foundations. A key element of the company’s strategy was to integrate the functions that used to be distributed across many chips into a single unit – known as the SOC or System-on-a-Chip. “I have always believed and believed that with the right architecture you have the chance to build the best chip,” he says. “So we started with the architecture that we believe is scalable. And by scaling we mean the scaling on performance and functions and the performance range, whether it is a watch, an iPad or an iMac. And then we started to selectively determine the technologies within the chip – we wanted to own them one by one. We started with the CPU first. And then we went into the graphics. Then we went into signal processing, display engine and so on. Year after year we built our technical skills, our wisdom and our ability to perform. And a few years later, if you get all of this right, you have really good architecture and your intellectual property and a team behind you that is now able to repeat that recipe. “
Ternus explains: “Traditionally, a team consists of a company developing a chip and they have their own priorities and optimizations. And then the product team and another company have to take that chip and make it work in their design. With these MacBook Pros, we started at the very beginning – the chip was designed right when the system was being thought through. With these high-performance parts, for example, the power delivery is important and challenging. By working together [early on], the team was able to find a solution. And the systems team was actually able to manipulate the shape, aspect ratio, and orientation of the SOC to blend in best with the rest of the system. “(Perhaps this helped convince Apple restore the missing ports That so many longed for with the previous MacBook.)
These executives clearly believe the new Macs represent a milestone in Apple’s strategy. But not his last. I suggest that a future milestone could be silicon, being adapted to enable an augmented reality system that would produce the graphics intensity, precise geolocation, and low power consumption that AR glasses would require. As was to be expected, the TPs did not comment on this.
Before the conversation ends, I have to ask Joswiak about the now discontinued Touch Bar, the dynamic function key feature that Apple brought to market with a great deal of noise five years ago, but never caught on. Unsurprisingly, its autopsy makes it a great gift for new users. “There’s no doubt that our Pro customers love the tactile feel of these full-size function keys, and that’s why we made this decision. And we feel great about it, ”he says. He points out that for those who love the Touch Bar, whoever they are, Apple is still selling the 13-inch version of the MacBook Pro with the softkeys intact.
The history of the Touch Bar reminds us that even the best silicone cannot guarantee designers will make the right decisions. But, as Srouji notes, if done right, it can unleash an infinite number of innovations that otherwise might not exist. Perhaps the most telling indicator of Apple’s silicon success this week came not from the launch of the MacBook Pro, but from Google’s unveiling of the Pixel 6 smartphone. Google boasted that the phone’s main virtues arose from its decision to follow the path that Apple and Srouji forged in 14 years ago build the company’s own chip, the tensor processor.
“Is this a case of ‘copying is the most sincere form of flattery?'” I ask the Apple team.
“You took my line!” says Joswiak. “They obviously think we’re doing something right.”
“If you gave kind advice to Google or any other company on their silicon journey, what would it be?” I ask.
“Oh, I don’t know,” says Joz. “Buy a Mac.”
This story originally appeared on wired.com.
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