Apple is now the world’s best silicon company, but not the sexy design-focused creator of lifestyle gadgets


The Apple of today is wildly different from what most people think of it as. Most people still think of it as the company behind simple-to-use but powerful gadgets like the iPhone, iPod, iPad and the MacBook Air. The Apple of 2019 is less design focussed than ever which one can also be seen in the exit of Sir Jonathan Ive, its fabled design guru, than more of a ground-up, albeit the best one on the planet. It uses its nonparallel ability to produce purpose build silicon to make the most endearing and delightful computing experiences in the form of gadgets like the Apple Watch, iPhone, iPad, iPod, HomePod, AirPods and even to a limited extent the MacBooks, Mac Mini, iMac and the Mac Pro. 

Don’t get me wrong — Apple is still perhaps the most design focussed gadget maker on the planet. Its lifestyle appeal is cemented in the fabric of humankind which means even if Apple loses its Midas touch, people will not stop believing it for decades. And with that in mind, Apple isn’t anywhere near losing its design focus, even though it has dwindled in the last few years with a ballooning array of products and SKUs. But what Apple does better than anyone today is zero in on an idea and build purpose-built hardware for it — starting with the silicon as the base foundation pairing it with custom-designed software packaged in the form of a lifestyle gadget. 

This didn’t happen by accident. Steve Jobs wanted Apple to control the entire pipeline. That’s why he acquired PA Semi in 2008 for its talent which forms the foundation of its hardware technologies group led by senior VP Jony Srouji. This group has been behind the A-series of processors on the iPhone, iPod and iPad, S-series of the chips for the Apple Watch, T-line of security chips on the Macs, W-series of wireless chips on the AirPods. This group goes beyond these SoCs and creates more purpose build hardware. It has become so good that Jony Srouji was in the running to become Intel’s CEO earlier in the year. 

Apple has gone from loathing any nerdy specifications in its keynotes to now openly showcasing them and crushing the competition with them in the last couple of years. There are some great examples from the recent past that point towards this competency. 

12 Examples of Apple’s silicon competency driving its ascendency in the industry are as follows:

  1.  In 2013, the A7 processor became the first 64-bit mobile SoC on the iPhone 5S which enabled a leap in mobile CPU performance breaking Qualcomm’s lead in the space. That breakthrough until today is the foundation of the iPhone’s performance advantage over Android smartphones. This is why Apple iPhones last longer than Android phones and generally get software updates for longer. 
  2. The W1 chip on the AirPods in 2016 enabled the seamless wireless switching and pairing on the AirPods apart from the beamforming for great audio quality which has made it the world’s leading wireless earphone. 
  3. The S1 chip debuted on the Apple Watch in 2014 which always gave it stupendous performance over any other Android-based smartwatch. Apple pulled further ahead with the S4 processor last year debuting a dual-core 64-bit architecture. It was so good that Apple didn’t need to add a new chip in the Apple Watch Series 5. 
  4. In 2018, Apple’s A12X processor on the iPad Pro debuted bone-crunching performance giving it graphics performance that rivals the Xbox One S console but with a smidgeon of the thermal footprint, in the size of a tablet. 
  5. With the iPhone X, Apple debuted the A11 processor which was the first one with a neural engine which could run 600 billion operations per second. This neural engine was also the basis for Face ID on the iPhone X. It was also the first SoC tuned for augmented reality tasks from the ground up tuned with the dual cameras on it.
  6. The iPhone X also marked the first time Apple designed its own GPU when it ditched the graphics provided by Imagination Technologies. Immediately, the iPhone had the best graphics on a mobile phone. This was always true, but this time around the gulf was larger. It is the basis on which Apple today has the ability to have a game subscription service like Apple Arcade. 
  7. Apple acquired a company called Authentec which based the foundation for Touch ID on the iPhone 5S in 2013. Apple continues to use this tech on iPads and older iPhones. Most people believe this to be the best fingerprint scanning technology. 
  8. The custom ISP on the A10 processor in the iPhone 7 Plus was one of the secret ingredients which were pivotal towards enabling the portrait mode on the phone which has now become a staple of the iPhone. It may sound rudimentary right now but back in 2016 dual cameras were alien on smartphones and most SoCs didn’t support twin cameras.
  9. Apple’s T2 security chip is ubiquitous across its MacBook Pro models since 2016 which not only enables the Touch ID security tech but also powers the Touch Bar which operates on an iOS subset. 
  10.  With the HomePod, Apple decided to use its A8 chip which enables its unique audio capabilities apart from powering Siri. The HomePod may not be the smartest speaker around, but it is one of the best sounding speakers of its class thanks to its intelligent adaptive sound which morphs as per the room. All of this is enabled by the A8 processor. 
  11.  On the 2019 Mac Pro, Apple has a custom afterburner card which it has designed itself to boost more performance for video editors and filmmakers as its GPU performance is throttled by the limits of AMD’s graphics as its feud with Nvidia doesn’t allow it to procure faster graphics. 
  12.  The new A13 bionic processor is all about balance. It gives a 20% CPU and GPU performance boost to the iPhone 11 over the iPhone XS, but it does so while dramatically making the stack more power-efficient. In addition, it adds machine learning accelerators for the first time apart from making the CPU powerful enough for 1 trillion machine learning instructions per second while retaining the neural engine which 15% faster while being more power-efficient. This new SoC is central to the cameras of the iPhone 11 — be it running all the cameras at once on apps like Filmic or Deep Fusion for DSLR like photos or general improvements in video and stills on the phone. 

Going forward this expertise in silicon technology will deepen. For instance, in the next couple of years, Apple will be designing its own modems. Apple acquired Intel’s 5G modem business which was developing a modem for the iPhone for a long time. One can trust Apple to make a killer 5G chip considering it is also getting access to patents licensed by Qualcomm which is a leader in this space. 

There are indicators that Apple will probably dump Intel and AMD for the Mac as it has embarked upon a transition period for macOS enabling capability for iOS apps on it. Apple will probably do this transition slowly as it doesn’t want Mac app developers to be jarred. Already, macOS developers can make unified apps which can work on the iPhone based on ARM design based A-series processors, so there is no reason why Apple can’t do the same for the Mac.