While the processor design may have been a factor in Apple’s success in the early stages, I would argue that this is a diminishing factor going forward.
I do agree that Apple is very good at optimizing user environments and applications to run on the company’s devices for maximum performance and power efficiency, but this is really a software expertise.
This expertise could be applied to processors from other vendors, maybe not as easily, but it could be done. In addition, as we have seen with both smartphones and tablets, the user interfaces, applications, content, and services are really the key differentiators, not the processor.
While you may get slightly different experiences from a smartphone with an Apple A5, Nvidia Tegra, Qualcomm Snapdragon, TI OMAP, or Samsung Exynos processor, most of the differences are driven by the features, services, and software optimization. And to many users, the difference between processor, device, and/or software generations is much more noticeable than between the various processors of the same generation.
In fact, the most noticeable difference between devices, the battery life, has more to do with the user settings, displays, and antennas than the processor. So, while it might make sense for smartphone OEMs that already have the investment and expertise in designing processors, it would seem to make little or no sense for other OEMs to start designing processors.
I am addressing this issue because of recent market rumors. In mid-2011 rumors that LG was considering designing processors for the company’s mobile devices, and just recently rumors that Huawei was designing processors for the company’s smartphones.
While there is no confirmation that the rumors are true or false, I have no doubt that these and other smartphone and tablet OEMs are pondering the potential of designing processors for future devices. I would, however, argue against pursuing these ambitions.
Not only would the costs and risks be high, the potential for a positive return would be low. Every semiconductor entity would like to think that they can sell their products to multiple customers, but history tells us otherwise. Nokia stopped designing processors years ago when other solutions became available, Motorola Semiconductor (now Freescale) failed to land a significant design win outside of the Motorola handsets, and Samsung Electronics is facing similar challenges.
While I indicated that this question has and will continue to arise as new electronic segments emerge, some things have changed.
The first is the issue of manufacturing. With the vast majority of new processors being manufactured through semiconductor foundries, companies must no longer make capital investments for fabs. However, the cost of getting a product to manufacturing does continue to rise dramatically.
There is also the issue of reuse. We are now in a period where almost all processors or logic control units are considered system-on-chips (SoCs) because they are very complex solutions that combine what were once discrete functions like processing cores, arithmetic units, graphics processing units (GPUs), video processing units, audio processors, memory, I/O, and wireless interfaces on a single piece of silicon.
As a result, these processors are a combination of multiple functional blocks combined through a high-speed network. Each functional block may have a different lifecycle depending on advancement in the technology or industry standards, which means that not all blocks will change from one processor design to the next even when targeting different applications.
A good example of this reuse is tablets. Instead of designing new processors for tablets, tablets began using processors designed for smartphones. While the two may diverge in the future, they are likely to share common characteristics. This is not to say that innovation in processor design is dead, because new electronic products are likely to drive innovation in processor design, and the question of make vs. buy will arise again.
If deisgning a processor becomes profitable they will do it. It may very well happen in the future but for now the market needs are not so diverse that each has to have his/her own chip. The want microprocessors that run fast and consume less power if somebody does it for them then they are all the better because they can bargain too!
I feel innovation will suffer, if you leave it all to some few semiconductor vendors alone and commoditize the market. Anyway If you have the kind of volumes that Apple and Samsung have, then it should be certainly worth it to keep the design inhouse. When Apple released A5, it had the highest GPU performance compared to all other industry equivalents, eventhough everyone else had access to the same imagination GPU that Apple used.
Many of the customers I worked with did their own semiconductor design. Not just the processor, but also the power management and other components. I think this model has become less common in the industry due to the cost of new designs at cutting edge processes. The other model that worked very well for our customers was to have a parnership with semicondctor company to design a custom chip for them. They would have several of these "partnerships" and would end up using the chip that met their needs the best. This meant that the semiconductor companies were competing while designing a custom device. If you didn't win, you wasted a lot of resources.
Good point Frank. So many of the chips being used today are classified as SoCs, I try to refrain from that general classification. In addition, there is often more reason for custom designs of processor companion chips for RF and I/O because vendors may have very specific requirements or even proprietary standards like Sony. However, as more is integrated into the host logic or "processor" the same issues arise. Ultimately, the processor is the technology magnet for a platform, with the possible exception of analog circuitry.
Perhaps the question should be rephrased as "should OEMs design their own SoCs?" and should be asked with less emphasis on the actual processor(s) used in those SoCs. The number of companies that answer yes will be more than just Apple & Samsung.
Also consider that the SoC that contains the main host processor cores is not the only one in the system. The mixed-signal audio CODEC, for example, has evolved into an SoC of its own, and here again Apple is a standout. The CL chips that Apple uses today for this function are clearly customized just for Apple, so this "captive vendor" model is yet another option for large OEMs -- somewhere in between designing their own SoC and just buying standard parts.
Join our online Radio Show on Friday 11th July starting at 2:00pm Eastern, when EETimes editor of all things fun and interesting, Max Maxfield, and embedded systems expert, Jack Ganssle, will debate as to just what is, and is not, and embedded system.