Apple snapping up chip designers

It has hired two former CTOs of graphics products from AMD, and has almost 20 lower-level chip design jobs open

A year after buying low-power processor designer PA Semi, Apple is looking for yet more chip design expertise.

The company has been recruiting at a very senior level for its chip design team, and also has almost 20 lower-level jobs related to semiconductor design open, some of them posted to its Web site in the last few days.

In January the CTO of the graphics product group at Advanced Micro Devices, Bob Drebin, left the company to join Apple, where he is now a senior director. (Apple's job titles give little away.) And only last week, reports suggested that his successor as CTO for graphics products, Raja Koduri, had also left the company to join Apple.

The first signs that Apple wanted to beef up its semiconductor design capabilities came with the news last April that it had acquired PA Semi, a company specializing in low-power microprocessor designs based on the PowerPC core used in a previous generation of Apple Macintosh computers.

Today's Macs are based on x86 processors supplied by Intel. While PA Semi's designs were considered energy efficient, their power consumption was more suited to lightweight laptops than smartphones, which must run for days on a single charge.

Apple is now seeking a range of other silicon design skills to complement the energy efficiency expertise it gained through its purchase of PA Semi.

While desktops and laptops have room for separate processors, graphics chips, memory and chipsets, smaller devices such as smartphones or Internet tablets often combine the processor and the other circuitry on a single piece of silicon, a technique known as system-on-chip (SOC).

Over a quarter of the chip-related vacancies at Apple are related to SOC technology, some of them emphasizing the need for experience in power management.

There are clearly new wireless products in Apple's future plans, although not all the wireless chip design work will be done in-house.

The company is looking for a mobile silicon program manager with experience working with multiple vendors as well as internal teams. The post, like most of the others, is based near Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, California.

Apple is also seeking two senior wireless systems engineers in Shanghai to work on integrating wireless technologies into its products.

While those two posts list Wi-Fi as the primary wireless technology, they also emphasize the importance of experience with Bluetooth, 3G, UWB (Ultrawide Band), WiMAX, GPS and Mobile TV systems, and of making multiple wireless systems coexist within a single product.

Making new chips work reliably can be difficult, and a significant proportion of the vacancies Apple is advertising are for verification, testing and quality control positions. Less than a week ago, it advertised for two design verification engineers to ensure the correctness of a high performance chip design.

It's not all chip-chip-chip for Apple's human resources department, though. On Wednesday, the company posted a vacancy in Paris for a programmer with experience of cryptography to work on its DRM (digital rights management) technology.

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Peter Sayer

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