The biggest problem for Google’s Pixel smartphone line has been the fact that in a world full of smartphones that have been designed by marketers with the best possible hardware specifications, its phones just don’t compete because of their software-driven approach. Google’s problem is twofold. On one side, Google’s smartphones are vessels for its services and prodigious capabilities in the artificial intelligence space, but at the same time, off-the-shelf components that exist in the market are either not good enough or too expensive or a combination of both.
Google’s phones are also designed with a philosophy of software outshining what the hardware is perceived to do. That’s why a phone like the Pixel 3A is able to do the same things as the Pixel 3 with the camera while offering inferior processing hardware at a third of the cost. This is one of the reasons why Google’s engineers have faith ( sometimes unfounded ) that they can derive more performance with lesser hardware. This works sometimes, like in the case of the Pixel 3A but backfires royally when they decide to skim on the battery size or RAM in the case of the Pixel 4.
This brings me to this latest report which claims that Google has made some major headway with the development of its own system on a chip (SoC) and it will be at the core of the Pixel 6 experience in 2021. Clearly, Google is likely not happy with what it is getting from Qualcomm. Hey, that’s probably the reason why it started using its own Visual Core chip which is designed in partnership with Intel to offload machine learning tasks for on-device processing on its Pixel smartphones since the Pixel 2. It even has its own Titan chip for the sake of security which means that it is leaning towards custom solutions.
Throughout Google’s history, there are examples of Google reinventing the wheel for the sake of making things cost-effective. In the Steven Levy Book, “In the Plex” which profiles the growth ff Google, he details how the company built custom server racks to make them cheaper and optimise performance. The same happened more recently with Google’s data centres being powered by Google’s new Tensor Flow processors called TPUs which are optimised for running machine learning applications in the cloud. Back in 2017, at MWC, at a roundtable, Google head of hardware Rick Osterloh told me, ” We will go anywhere where innovation requires us to go,” he said. “Without a doubt, the company will make bold and audacious bets on technology if they impact the user experience,” he added.
With privacy being a big deal these days and there being a huge need to do on-device processing, Google needs a custom chip to differentiate its product. It also needs a performance advantage over the iPhone and other Android phones which it doesn’t by using off the shelf hardware.
What’s the leak?
- The codename of the chip is Whitechapel which has been co-designed with Samsung. It will be ready in 2021 and will be manufactured on a state of the art Samsung 5nm process which will be a step up from the current 7nm process which is being used for flagship chips like the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 and the Apple A13 Bionic which is there on the iPhone 11.
- Google’s engineers have just received a working prototype of this system-on-chip (SoC). It is said that this will be used for a Pixel smartphone later next year and then beyond that, it will even be used in Chromebooks.
- It should be noted that Google has used Samsung’s Exynos processors before in Chromebooks. Considering the frugal nature of Chrome OS and increasing dependence of progressive web apps, it makes more sense for Google to use ARM-based solutions instead of expensive and power-hungry Intel SoCs.
- This chip in question is said to be an 8-core ARM processor with hardware optimised for Google’s machine learning algorithms and enhancement of always-on capabilities of the Google Assistant. This sound like a dedicated neural engine which has been there on the iPhone since the days of the A11 Bionic.
Going beyond the leak
- A custom chip for Google’s Pixel and Chromebooks makes total sense as silicon is what allows for meaningful differentiation. Google’s value proposition becomes diluted when its hardware is using the same components as the mass market. It gets dragged into direct comparisons with gadgets that have similar hardware. Like in the case of Pixel 4, it used the Snapdragon 855 with 6GB RAM and a dual-camera system. By the time the Pixel 4 came out, there were phones with the Snapdragon 855+ chip. Additionally, 8GB RAM became the standard across flagship phones along with triple cameras. The iPhone has always bucked this trend as it has a custom processor and just uses 4GB RAM. On the iPhone XR, Apple only had one camera, and for the last couple of years, it has been the best selling phone in the world.
- Apart from the marketing advantage, there are some real gains to be made. Apple, for instance, has a neural engine which handles machine learning and AR on the device. Similarly, Huawei’s P series of smartphones are able to have prodigious cameras because of their custom Kirin silicon. Hell, Google also has a custom Vision core chip that handles some offloading for the camera processing. Since Google is the creator of Android, it could make the OS sing on custom hardware while also optimising the stack for every planned feature on the phone. Smaller things like battery life can be optimised which ties well in the software-based philosophy of the Pixel smartphones. Most Android smartphones try to do feature improvements with massive hardware jumps, but these jumps have proven to provide just incremental improvements. Google is right now limited by what Qualcomm’s product can do. That will change.
- This custom chip will also help Google circumvent Qualcomm which is important for the health of the Android smartphone ecosystem. Qualcomm’s practices in the semi-conductor space have been questionable at best in the recent past. Intel claims that Qualcomm drove them out of mobile modem space with anti-competitive practices. Intel’s modem business was eventually bought by Apple last year. At the same time, Qualcomm released the Snapdragon 865 which has forced vendors to buy an additional modem for 5G, even if the phone is to be sold in markets that don’t have 5G networks as Qualcomm even removed the 4G modem from the main SoC. Almost every OEM claims that this has driven up the cost of making a flagship phone. Just look at Xiaomi’s India marketing chief ranting against the Snapdragon 865 here on Twitter? His company was scheduled to launch the Mi 10 in India on March 31st, but that phone has been delayed in India because of the lockdowns.
- The addition of a modem doesn’t just add component cost, it involves redoing the thermal architecture of a phone, accommodate for one more component which is bound to make the phone larger and also accommodate for the antennas that are supported by the 5G and 4G mode. Literally, every flagship Android smartphone outside of the Galaxy S20 and P40 Pro uses the Snapdragon 865 — when one compares the price of the OnePlus 8 Pro with the OnePlus 7T Pro, the jump is an exponential $230.
- This flows into the rumour that Google’s Pixel 5 may not use a Snapdragon 865 in 2020 but instead will be based on a Snapdragon 765. We’ve already seen HMD Global go down this route with the Nokia 8.3. Google probably doesn’t need all the high-level features of the Snapdragon 865 as it would probably marry a co-processor which it has designed on its own. It would need a base level of performance coupled with 5G at sub-6GHz frequencies for developed markets which is what the Snapdragon 765 will provide. At the same time, Google will likely want to keep the costs down so that it can launch the phone in markets like India where it didn’t last year.
- This would also help bring back Samsung to relevance as Qualcomm’s literal monopoly has really pushed back Samsung’s Exynos unit which was reportedly unhappy that its flagship phone didn’t use its own Exynos chip in its home market of South Korea but instead chose Qualcomm. The Android chipset ecosystem needs more competition as players like MediaTek, Exynos and even Kirin need to break out of the mid-range market and challenge Qualcomm at the upper echelons of the ecosystem to ensure continued innovation.
- If one looks at the Snapdragon 865, it is actually not a massive leap from the Snapdragon 855 — and at the same time, when compared to the A13 Bionic chip it gets literally blown away. The Snapdragon 865 is objectively as fast as only the A11 chip which was on the iPhone X, that’s how far behind the best of Android is right now. That’s a bad look on the scale of innovation on Android processors and definitely it will be the reason for Google to want to control and own the pipeline.
What does this mean for Qualcomm?
- It goes without saying that Qualcomm remains the undisputed champion of 5G and 4G modems. There is a reason why even Apple had to bow down to Qualcomm and close a deal with it dumping Intel’s modems as Qualcomm’s products were just superior. However, its superiority also stems some monopolistic practices which have squashed competition which has now pulled it in the eye of regulators across the world. Apple has had enough of this as it soon acquired Intel’s modem business last year which means it is working on a plan to get rid of Qualcomm as soon as possible.
- There is more to a phone than a modem — people play games, get their work done and enjoy content on these devices. Qualcomm’s ascendency in compute isn’t absolute. Apple has proven that by vertically integrating its A-series of processors with its own iOS platform. Qualcomm hasn’t been able to prove that level of performance neither with its Android facing Snapdragon processors or heavy-duty Snapdragon 8CX chip which has been designed for Windows on ARM. A good indicator of this is that Microsoft customised the 8CX for the Surface Pro X called SQ 1. Google seems to be doing the same which bodes negatively on the company as Google is the prime Shepard for Android. If Google feels it can’t make the best product using Qualcomm, then why would anyone else feel the same way.
- That’s also the reason why many of the big manufacturers have their own processors — Huawei has Kirin, Samsung has Exynos and even Xiaomi has dabbled in its own chip called the Pinecone which was a mid-level chip and now has been spinoff to make AI accelerators. If one looks at Samsung, it could be even stronger in the near term as now its GPUs are going to leverage AMD’s technology thanks to a licensing deal — this could also make its way to Google’s chip as GPUs have been a weakness of Android SoCs, thanks mostly to Qualcomm which dominated Nvidia in the last decade only for it to hibernate into cloud computing and gaming.