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Google borgs Steve Jobs refugees for 'tablet' smarts

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Google has acquired a chip maker staffed by former Apple engineers, with an apparent interest in using their chip smarts to move the Chrome and Android OSes onto things like iPad-chasing tablets and TV set-top boxes.

The chip maker is known as Agnilux, and it was co-founded by Mark Hayter, one of the leading system architects at PA Semi, the boutique chip designer famously acquired by Apple for $278m in the spring of 2008. According to the social networking site LinkedIn, at least six former PA Semi employees left Apple to join Agnilux, including two other engineers and the company's CEO.

In the words of Steve Jobs, Apple acquired PA Semi to build "system-on-chips for iPhones and iPods," and it's rumored that PA Semi played a role in the Apple-designed A4 chip at the heart of the iPad. Does that mean Agnilux is meant for the GPad? Perhaps. According to a New York Times source familiar with the acquisition, Google purchased Agnilux with an eye on porting things like Chrome OS and Android onto things like tablets and set-top boxes.

“These are systems guys focusing on hardware-software integration,” this person told The Times. “It’s not chip design. It’s getting software platforms to work on different kinds of hardware with lots of obscure backend technologies.”

That said, in a February piece from The Times, a former PA Semi employee said the San Jose-based Agnilux was working not on chips for phones, handhelds, and tablets but on "some kind of server."

News of the Agnilux acquisition was leaked on Tuesday with a post to PE Hub - a Reuters-run forum for venture capitalists, buyout mavens, and others in the "private equity community" - and Google has confirmed the buy to The Reg. "We're pleased to welcome the Agnilux team to Google, but we don't have any details to share right now," a company spokesman said.

The Agnilux website has now been taken offline, but even the cached page isn't much help. It merely says that the company is based in San Jose, and that its name is derived from agni, the Sanskrit word for fire, and lux, the Latin word for light.

At a recent party, Google CEO Eric Schmidt apparently said that the company is developing a tablet based on its Linux-based Android mobile operating system. And the company has mocked up designs for a Chrome OS tablet as well.

But in the past, the web giant has made it quite clear it had no interest in becoming "a hardware company" - meaning it will let others build the hardware for such consumer devices. With its Android-based Nexus One phone, Google went to great pains to show the world that the handset's hardware was designed not by its own employees but by engineers on the payroll of Taiwanese manufacturer HTC.

Speaking with The Times, a second person familiar with Agnilux said that the company has a certain expertise in “modular semi technology that allows you to regulate power more efficiently on the tablet form factor.” But it's no secret that Google is eying TV set-top boxes as well. ®

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