Apple has been upping the ante on their silicon design capabilities faster than anyone anticipated, with impressive results. The end point was known, the steps to get there were understood, but the exact cadence of progress was only conjecture until a few recent steps made things much clearer.
As we stated almost two years ago, Apple is pretty hell-bent on making their own mainstream CPU, top to bottom. Fair enough, but given the magnitude of that task, how on earth were they going to get there? Pundits are fond of pointing out hires, and pointing out how a single person is going to change everything, a laughable notion. What no one seems to do is put all the pieces together to see the big picture.
We won’t rehash all the people, teams, and technologies that Apple has bought over the past few years, but suffice it to say that there is a long list. There were been few outward signs of progress, but that changed with some recent CPU releases. Even with things changing, the progress was, err, progressive, and so once again, few noticed the magnitude when taken as a whole.
If you recall, the first iPhones had a Samsung SoCs in them. They weren’t exactly bleeding edge, and Apple did little more than pick a few pieces and order up the count of various portions, picked clocks, and added the feature here and there. It was not exactly a tour de force of their silicon might, but few companies can do even that much. Then came the next generation, and lo and behold, there were a few Samsung cores, Imagination GPUs, and the rest came from Cupertino. Apple did large swathes of the uncore themselves, at the time an unexpected move. Progress, massive progress, but everyone cares about the cores and GPU, so no one seemed to notice that Apple did the trickiest parts of the SoC in house.
Then all was quiet. The next generation or two, depending on how you count, was just more cores, more GPU, and nothing really recognizable from the outside. World class chips, world class performance, and pretty amazing power numbers somehow didn’t get people’s attention. We blame the state of the press for not seeing what was in front of them, but the changes were there, and the tech was impressive. Because it didn’t involve cores or shader count, no one gave them a second look.
Then came the A6 line, the most recent chips. No A9 core this time, it was a somewhat unexpected A15 ISA core. More unexpected was that it wasn’t a vanilla ARM licensed A15 core either, it was a full blown custom core. No one other than Anand seemed to notice through the reality distortion field that Tim Cook seems to have finally got tuned back up, but Apple made their own core, top to bottom. Headline count? Woefully low. Pointless stories about the finish of the case? 7-8 orders of magnitude higher. If that isn’t progress, I don’t know what is.