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Apple setting up chip division for next-gen iPhones?

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Apple appears to be amassing a team of engineers, with the intention of making its own chips for the next generation of iPhones.

The suggestion comes from the Wall Street Journal, which has put together the news from recent hires by the company and searches of LinkedIn, and reckons that the lads in Cupertino are as motivated by increasing security as adding features.

Apple acquired chip-design company PA Semi about a year ago, and Steve Jobs admitted the company would be creating system-on-a-chip (SoC) designs for the iPhone and iPods just after that. So the recruitment of Raja Koduri (who starts with Apple this week) and Bob Drebin, both of whom held the position of CTO at AMD, shouldn't come as a complete shock.

In December Apple also chucked $4.8m in to British SoC developer Imagination Technologies, buying 3.6 per cent of a company ideally positioned to integrate powerful graphics into a new chip design.

The iPhone already uses an SoC from ARM, but there are half a dozen other bits of silicon on the board that could be incorporated into a more-specialised die. That would, as outlined by the WSJ piece, reduce power consumption by a considerable degree, but it also locks the company into one design and reduces flexibility.

Such designs are normally developed once a product has matured, as the iPhone has, and is expected to remain static for a considerable period - during which the huge cost of developing the new chip can be recouped through reduced manufacturing costs - which, arguably, the iPhone won't.

Apple could well be designing a centrepiece for a new iPhone model, in an attempt to gain those economies from the outset. That would be risky, but not unprecedented, and perhaps in keeping with the spirit of Apple.

Citing the omniscient "people familiar with", the WSJ makes the case that the move is motivated by a desire to increase security, so Apple won't have to share technical details of its plans with third parties.

It will probably be another year before we see any silicon coming out of Cupertino, on the basis of the number of specialists Apple is still trying to recruit, which could be a little late for a next-generation iPhone that the industry seems to be expecting to emerge this year. But Apple has been known to surprise us before. ®

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