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A look inside Apple’s silicon playbook


A look inside Apple’s silicon playbook

This week Apple introduced a set of new MacBook Pro laptops. During the prerecorded launch event, Apple’s 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 billion and 57 billion transistors, respectively, they are the engines powering the new Mac devices’ super hi-res displays, providing blazing speed, and extending battery life. The laptops represent the apotheosis of a 14-year strategy that has transformed the company—literally under the hood of its products—in a massive effort to design and build its own chips. Apple is now methodically replacing microprocessors it buys from vendors like Intel and Samsung with its own, which are optimized for the needs of Apple users. The effort has been stunningly successful. Apple was once a company defined by design. Design is still critical at Apple, but I now consider it a silicon company.

A couple days after the keynote, I had a rare on-the-record conversation about Apple silicon with senior worldwide marketing VP Greg Joswiak (aka “Joz”), senior hardware engineering VP John Ternus, and senior hardware technology VP Johny Srouji. I had been asking Apple to put me in touch with Srouji for years. His title only hints at his status as the chip czar at Apple. Though he’s begun to appear on camera at recent Apple events, he generally avoids the spotlight. An Israeli-born engineer who previously worked at Intel and IBM, Srouji joined Apple in 2008, specifically to fulfill a mandate from Steve Jobs, who felt that the chips in the original iPhone couldn’t meet his demands. 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 pivotal creative wizard whipping up the secret sauce in Apple’s offerings.

Srouji, of course, won’t cop to that. After all, the playbook for Apple executives is to expend their hyperbole on Macs, iPhones, and iPads, not 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’re building silicon for a company that builds products.”

Srouji is clear on the advantages of rolling out your own chips, as opposed to buying from a vendor like Intel, which was summarily booted from MacBook Pros this week in favor of the M’s. “When you’re a merchant vendor, a company that delivers off-the-shelf components or silicon to many customers, you have to figure what is the least common denominator—what is it that everyone needs across many years?” he says. “We work as one team—the silicon, the hardware, the software, the industrial design, and other teams—to enable a certain vision. When you translate that to silicon, that gives us a very unique opportunity and freedom because now you’re designing something that is not only truly unique, but optimized for a certain product.” In the case of the MacBook Pro, he says, he sat with leaders like Ternus and Craig Federighi several years ago and envisioned what users would be able to get their hands on in 2021. It would all spring from the silicon. “We sit together, and say, ‘Okay, is it gated by physics? Or is it something we can go beyond?’ And then, if it’s not gated by physics and it’s a matter of time, we go figure out how to build it.”

Think about that—the only restraint Apple’s chipmakers concede to is the physical boundary of what’s possible.

Srouji explained how his journey at Apple has been one of conscious iteration, building on a strong foundation. A key element of the company’s strategy has been to integrate the functions that used to be distributed among many chips into a single entity—known as SOC, or system-on-a-chip. “I always fundamentally felt and believed that if you have the right architecture, then you have a chance to build the best chip,” he says. “So we started with the architecture that we believe would scale. And by scaling, we mean scaling to performance and features and the power envelope, whether it’s a watch or iPad or iMac. And then we started selectively figuring the technologies within the chip—we wanted to start owning 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, etcetera. Year over year, we built our engineering muscle and wisdom and ability to deliver. And a few years later, when you do all this and you do it right, you find yourself with really good architecture and IP you own and a team behind you that is now capable of repeating that recipe.”

Ternus elaborates: “Traditionally, you’ve got one team at one company designing a chip, and they have their own set of priorities and optimizations. And then the product team and another company has to take that chip and make it work in their design. With these MacBook Pros, we started all the way at the beginning—the chip was being designed right when the system was being thought through. For instance, power delivery is important and challenging with these high-performance parts. By working together [early on], the team was able to come up with a solution. And the system team was actually able to influence the shape, aspect ratio, and orientation of the SOC so that it can best nest into the rest of the system components.” (Maybe this helped convince Apple to restore the missing ports that so many had longed for in the previous MacBook.)

Clearly these executives believe the new Macs represent a milestone in Apple’s strategy. But not its last. I suggest that a future milestone might be silicon customized to enable an augmented reality system, producing the graphics intensity, precision geolocation, and low power consumption that AR spectacles would require. Predictably, the VPs did not comment on that.

Before the conversation ends, I have to ask Joswiak about the now discontinued Touch Bar, the dynamic function-key feature that Apple launched with great fanfare five years ago but that never caught on. Not surprisingly, his postmortem spins it as a great gift to new users. “There’s no doubt that our Pro customers love that full-size, tactile feel of those function keys, and so that’s the decision we made. And we feel great about that,” he says. He points out that for lovers of the Touch Bar, whoever they may be, Apple is still selling the 13-inch—now obsolete—version of the MacBook Pro with the soft keys intact.

The tale of the Touch Bar reminds us that even the best silicon can’t guarantee designers will make the right choices. But as Srouji notes, when done right, it can unleash an infinite number of innovations that could not otherwise exist. Maybe the most telling indicator of Apple’s silicon success this week came not from the launch of the MacBook Pro, but in Google’s unveiling of the Pixel 6 phone. Google boasted that the phone’s key virtues sprang from a decision to follow the path Apple and Srouji forged 14 years ago in building the company’s own chip, the Tensor processor.

“Is this a case of ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?’” I ask the Apple team.

“You took my line!” says Joswiak. “Clearly, they think we’re doing something right.”

“If you were to give Google or some other company friendly advice 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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