Departure of Key Engineer Could Set Back Apple’s Chip Design Ambitions

Engineer Holding Chip Credit: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock
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Apple has lost one of the key members of its semiconductor engineering team, casting doubt on whether the company will remain on track in its efforts to create its own 5G modem chip, along with what the future may hold for the groundbreaking A-series processors that power all of its iPhones and iPads.

According to CNET, Gerard Williams III has left Apple after nine years of work on the chip engineering team. Williams was a senior director in platform architecture, and led the development of all of Apple’s 64-bit A-series chips, from the original A7 of the iPhone 5s era to the A12 and A12X chips that power the current iPhone and iPad Pro lineups.

While you’ve probably never heard of Williams — his name was virtually unknown outside of Apple — sources say that his efforts in leading the company’s system-on-a-chip (SoC) designs have been critical to many of Apple’s recent successes. While Williams originally simply led the design of the custom CPU cores for Apple’s A-series chips, his responsibilities expanded to overseeing the layout of the entire SoC package, including GPU graphics, memory, and of course Apple’s new Neural Engine. In this role, Williams would have been responsible for not only the raw performance specs of the chips, but also things like ensuring optimal battery life and minimal size.

The loss of Williams will likely be a setback for Apple at a time when the company is preparing to expand its chip engineering efforts across the board. Not only is the company undoubtedly preparing an A13 — and probably even an A14 already — to succeed its A12 for the next couple of iPhone generations, but there have been many rumours of ARM-based MacBooks that will shift away from Intel to Apple-made CPUs, which would represent the biggest shift in MacBook architecture since the company went to Intel back in 2006.

While Apple has embraced Intel’s i9 processors for now, the company is already in the process of building a unified iOS and Mac app ecosystem, which many believe is part of the push to going with Apple-designed ARM-based CPUs for its desktop and laptop ecosystem, as this would bring Macs onto the same hardware architecture as Apple’s iOS devices, making it considerably easier for developers to build apps that would easily work on all platforms.

Similarly, Apple’s ongoing dispute with Qualcomm has pushed the company into developing its own 5G modem chips, although it’s already starting from behind, and may find itself needing to rely on Intel for the first crop of 5G iPhones. Even then, many analysts suggest it will be a challenge for Apple to have a 5G iPhone ready for next year, and the departure of one of Apple’s top chip design talent definitely isn’t going to help matters.

That said, Williams contributions to Apple’s chip engineering will probably last beyond his tenure with the company. As CNET points out, Williams is listed as an inventor on more than 60 patents owned by Apple, ranging from power management to advanced multicore CPU technology, and there’s a good chance that Apple’s chip designs for the next couple of years are almost finalized.

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