Apple hiring activity doesn't point to an Intel split just yet

8 months ago by Jeremy Bloom

Is Apple about to drop Intel and begin making its own computer chips? After Ian King and Mark Gurman's Monday report in Bloomberg that reported Apple was planning just that, investors panicked and dumped Intel stock, sending it on a one-day 5.38% tumble.

We took a deep look at hiring data at Apple to see if it supports the notion that Apple is building a stable of engineers to build processors in-house.

But first, let's be clear: Apple ($NASDAQ:AAPL) isn't new to the chip game. The company has been successfully making chips for its iPhones, its iPads, and its Apple Watches. As an earlier Bloomberg article notes

When the original iPhone came out in 2007, Steve Jobs was well aware of its flaws... 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, including elements from a Samsung chip used in DVD players. “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,” [senior vice president for hardware technologies at Apple Johny] Srouji says. “You have to control and own it.”

So it would make sense that Apple would want to make chips for its Macs and Macbooks as well. macOS, Apple's desktop operating system, looks more like iOS, Apple's mobile operating system, with every revision. Meanwhile, Apple has certainly demonstrated its interest - and ability - to pull chipmaking in-house, as it did when it froze out Imagination Technologies for GPUs.

So, what do the hiring numbers say? Is Apple launching a wave of hiring reflective of a major new CPU effort? 

On first glance, it doesn't appear so.

That's the entirety of the Thinknum data trail for jobs related directly to chipmaking (Keywords: Chip, CPU, EFI, UEFI). The previous hiring surge peaked in early August of 2016, corresponding to Apple's crash program to develop a more advanced A9X chip for its iPad Pro launch and the push to develop the first-generation graphics chip for the iPhone. Apple does know how to do something like this quickly and effictively, though - they're just not really showing signs of doing it now.

When Apple decided to go it alone on GPUs, the company hired GPU specialists. The story broke in April of 2017, and here are the numbers for keyword GPU:

Rumors of Apple going in-house are nothing new. "Apple to dump Qualcomm for Intel" cropped up in 2016, in 2017, and again in February (and each time Intel's stock price saw a nice ride).

The Bloomberg report mentions 2020 as a possible timeframe for when we might see the first Apple CPUs, which is not far off. That said, if Apple simply scales up its extant CPU teams that are already skillfully developing chips for iPhones and iPads, a 2020 launch isn't necessarily out of the question.

Apple's overall hiring for hardware engineers is up significantly. Some of those jobs could end up working on Apple's ARM chips, at least in the long term.

For a final note, Gordon Mah Ung at Macworld today points out that Intel has some very suitable chips for the next generation of Macs:

With Intel’s introduction of its 8th generation Coffee Lake CPUs on Tuesday, it’s again that time of the year when the reality TV show called MacBook gets to act as a romance-seeking laptop looking for new internals.

While the future of the MacBook could see a marriage with an Apple-made ARM processor, the immediate future of the MacBook sees the continuation of the courtship with Intel and its x86 CPUs.

Jeremy Bloom

When Jeremy Bloom isn't writing about energy, the environment, or the amazing strangeness of modern life, you can find him drinking really good single malt whisky...

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