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Why Didn't Google Make Their Own Chipset for Pixel Phones?

11/30/2016 03:13 pm ET

Why didn't Google made their own chipset for Pixel phones as Apple did for iPhone 7 (and previous versions)? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Michael Vogel, Apple technician and expert, on Quora:

Why didn't Google made their own chipset for Pixel phones? Because if Google wanted to do that they should have started years ago. Like, a decade ago. Since they didn't, if they wanted to start designing custom chipsets, they would need at least five to eight years to match Apple's current performance.

Chip design isn't easy. It takes years and years. It isn't something that you just start doing and have a working product in a year or two. It isn't something that you can just assemble a team for, grab a bunch of engineers and a couple companies, and then crank out a competitive chip a few years later. It just doesn't work that way. There's a reason why the biggest chip makers in the world have almost no new competitors.

Let's look at the path Apple took to get to where it is today in the world of chips and how it got to be one of the best chip design companies out there.

In 2008, not long after the iPhone was launched, Apple purchased the company P.A. Semi. The company had been in business since 2003 and the world of mobile chip making was still fairly new. In fact, the modern smartphone market was still a baby. Only two years later, Apple, with the head start that P.A. Semi gave them, released their first device with a custom designed ship, the Apple A4, with the iPhone 4. While a decent chip, it was clear that Apple still was progressing and still had a lot of work to do.

In 2013, Apple released the iPhone 5s powered by the Apple A7 Cyclone. It was the first time that showed Apple's chip design fully as it absolutely crushed the competition. In fact, to call it a competition was slightly misleading. The A7 was within striking distance of laptop chips from Intel [1]. A full reading of AnAndTech's review of the Apple's SoC from the A7 on is great for showing just how much ahead Apple became post 2013. While the Apple A8 was only a modest upgrade, in keeping with Apple's "tick-tock" upgrade cycle, the Apple A9 Twister was another huge upgrade, further advancing past competition that was still struggling to match the performance of the two year old A7 [2]. The fact that many benchmarks in 2015 still included the iPhone 5s on the board showed just how far Apple was ahead.

To make it even more difficult for competitors, Apple was becoming not only the premier chip designer in the world, it was attracting the top talent too. The top engineers like to work with the best company. Here's a quote from an article that sums up just how far Apple has come:

Building competent semiconductor design capabilities is an absolutely massive endeavor. Especially as there isn't much VC investment going in to chip startups anymore. Almost none actually. Owning this was quintessential strategy on the part of Jobs. In the past 7 years since Apple got serious about designing silicon, they have effectively surpassed the performance of Intel. This has been well documented.5 The fact that Apple's sexiest new products don't even consider using Intel's latest technology is a lagging indicator of how innovation in PCs got blown away by what happened in the mobile ecosystem.

The truth is the best people in chip design no longer want to work at Intel or Qualcomm. They want to work at Apple. I have plenty of friends in the Valley who affirm this. Sure Apple products are cooler. But Apple has also surpassed Intel in performance. This is insane. A device company - which makes CPUs for internal use - surpassing Intel, the world's largest chip maker which practically invented the CPU and has thousands of customers [3].

I suggest reading the entire piece, which sums up Apple's work in the SoC field as of 2015.

So let's look at the timeline here: Apple purchases a five year old chip company at a very advantageous time in the mobile and chip market and with two years of hard work is able to release a decent chip. In another three years, five years after the purchase and ten years after the original founding, they manage to release one of the best chips in the industry. From there, they only increase their lead and become one of the best, if not the best, chip design companies in the world.

So, assuming that Google wants to design their own chipset and assuming that they could follow a similar timeline, it would take them at least five to six years to match current performance, and that's if they could find a small company like P.A. Semi with the skill and the expertise to match. That's a best case scenario. Google is not Apple and they are not a design or hardware company and they know it; they usually outsource hardware work for that reason. Also, not only is the market changing but there really aren't any small companies that could give them an edge. Google would have to work with one of the companies that has expertise in this field, like Intel and Qualcomm. Then they encounter a problem with the most talented engineers wanting to work for Apple and why Intel or Qualcomm would want to work on a custom designed chip that would see limited use and distribution worldwide and could only be sold to one customer while taking years and billions of dollars to develop.

The bottom line is, if Google had wanted to release a custom SoC, they should have started working on the endeavor at least eight years ago and even that probably wouldn't have been enough. If Google started when they started working on the Pixel (let's say two years to be generous) in 2014, they'd have a competitive chip sometime in the 2020s, if they were lucky and after pouring billions into it. In spite of the clear advantages that such a custom designed SoC offers, there's a reason only Apple does it. Even Samsung, which is a hardware company and has both the design and manufacturing experience, doesn't design their own SoC.

The answer is, Google doesn't design their own SoC because they can't.

Footnotes

[1] The iPhone 5s Review

[2] The Apple iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus Review

[3] On Apple's Insurmountable Platform Advantage

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