In the February 22-28 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, Johny Srouji, Apple’s senior vice president for hardware technologies, discusses Apple’s winning strategy of owning its own silicon. It began with the acquisition a Silicon Valley chip startup called P.A. Semi in April of 2008 and since then, Apple has never looked back.
The Bloomberg article cites that “When the original iPhone came out in 2007, Steve Jobs was well aware of its flaws. It had no front camera, measly battery life, and a slow 2G connection from AT&T. It was also underpowered. A former Apple engineer who worked on the device said that while the handset was a breakthrough technology, it was limited because it pieced together components from different vendors.”
In an earlier paper, I likened this to the Frankenstein Effect where I wrote:
Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, tells the story of a monster created with parts collected from random cadavers. The creature stands eight feet tall due to an inability to integrate all the necessary components into a standard humanoid form factor. Additionally, this haphazard collection of limbs and organs lacks sufficient neural network connections, accounting for its awkward gate and general stiffness of its arms and shoulders as it walks with forearms extended. This is perhaps the first documented evidence of the problems that can occur when designing a system using ‘point-products’, parts selected for their unique special functions without regard for their perfect interoperability. Clearly, Mary Shelley was a visionary.
The BBW article continues, “Steve came to the conclusion that the only way for Apple to really differentiate and deliver something truly unique and truly great, you have to own your own silicon, Srouji says. ‘You have to control and own it.”
Not every company can afford to acquire and successfully maintain a semiconductor development center dedicated to supporting their internal needs. But you can gain many of the same benefits by working with a reputable ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) semiconductor company to design and produce custom ICs for you.
No one can deny that Apple and a handful of other high tech companies are anomalies. They have the wherewithal and financial resources to do just about anything they want including acquiring at the drop of a hat capabilities they don’t already have. Good for them. Your company may not be so fortunate. That doesn’t mean you have to throw your hands in the air and give up. There are lesser cost alternatives that can generate similar technological, cost and size advantages to ignite your sales.
First and foremost is to eliminate any Frankenstein Effects in your design.
In the world of standard product ICs, there are chips that can do just about any function you can imagine…just like the arms, legs, torso and brain Mary Shelley wrote about. The trick is to get them to connect and interoperate in a smooth and efficient manner. If every chip interfaced smoothly with every other chip in a design, engineering would be so easy that even a finance major could do it. Unfortunately that isn’t the case, so engineers spend a disproportionate amount of their time and effort getting part A to communicate with part B and getting part B to communicate with part C, etc., and thus designs can quickly become awkward and cumbersome as additional components are added to bridge these transitions.
Apple’s solution was nothing short of brilliant timing but not unique. Companies have grown dramatically by gaining needed technology by acquiring other companies for decades; look into Cisco’s history. These big ticket approaches are reserved for companies with deep pockets. A less costly approach is to develop a relationship with an ASIC chip company to roll your critical design elements into a custom system on a chip. You don’t even need to go that far. Often a subset of a system integrated into a single silicon chip can be the needed catalyst to jump start your product’s success.
ASICs are no longer the purview of the high volume users. Many ASIC companies entertain volumes as low as a few tens of thousands of units per year; some even as low as a couple of thousand. And some offer NRE & Tooling rebate programs that over time make the development costs zero, putting total cost of ownership on par with off the shelf components.
Whether through acquisition or partnering with an ASIC company, the benefits are nearly identical: Faster Time to Market, Improved Performance, Lower Total System Cost, Reduced Size, IP Protection, Lower Power Dissipation, and Improved Reliability.
No one ever accused Apple of being stupid. Investigate for yourself and see how you can keep Frankenstein out of your designs.Share this post via: