Steve Jobs knocked Intel's chip design, inflexibility

In a new biography, the Apple co-founder leveled some sharp criticism at Intel and even grew impatient because he believed Apple would have to teach the world's premier chip company how to design better chips.

Apple elected to go with internally-designed A series chips in its iPhone and iPad, instead of an Intel design, according to Jobs' biography.
Apple elected to go with internally-designed A series chips in its iPhone and iPad, instead of an Intel design, according to Jobs' biography. Apple

Steve Jobs had some choice words for Intel that went beyond just censure to hubris in the just-released biography.

In Walter Isaacson's biography, "Steve Jobs," the former Apple CEO, who recently passed away, had significant issues with Intel as a company as well as its world-renowned processors.

Apple switched to Intel's X86 chip design in 2005 when it dropped IBM's and Motorola's PowerPC processors. And Intel chips have been powering Apple's MacBooks and Macs exclusively ever since.

But Jobs implies in the biography that Intel wasn't keeping up with the times. He explains why Apple didn't select Intel chips for the iPhone.

"There were two reasons we didn't go with them. One was that they [the company] are just really slow. They're like a steamship, not very flexible. We're used to going pretty fast. Second is that we just didn't want to teach them everything, which they could go and sell to our competitors," Jobs is quoted as saying.

On one level that last statement is rather remarkable. Jobs, of course, was saying that Apple would have to teach the world's premier chipmaker how to design better chips. But, on another, it speaks to Intel's Achilles Heel: its chips are fast but not comparatively power efficient.

"At the high-performance level, Intel is the best," Jobs is quote in the book. "They build the fastest, if you don't care about power and cost."

Jobs didn't stop there. "We tried to help Intel, but they don't listen much," he said.

The book depicts Tony Fadell, a senior vice president at Apple, as instrumental in moving Apple to an alternative chip design. He "argued strongly" for a design from U.K.-based ARM--which powers virtually all of the world's smartphones and tablets. (In addition to Apple and its A4 and A5 chips, companies like Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, Marvell, and Nvidia make chips based on the ARM design.)

Subsequently, Apple went out and purchased P.A. Semi, which helped to create Apple's first high-profile system-on-a-chip, the A4. Apple then later purchased ARM design house Intrinsity.

And Jobs also voiced a gripe that many PC game enthusiasts have been leveling at Intel for many years. "We've been telling them for years that their graphics [silicon] suck."

Isaacson also includes a rebuttal from Intel CEO Paul Otellini. "It would have made sense for the iPad to use Intel chips. The problem...was that Apple and Intel couldn't agree on price. Also, they disagreed on who would control the design," according to the book.

It would be unfair not to note that Intel has apparently gotten the message. Intel's most power-efficient Sandy Bridge processors now power all of Apple's MacBook Air laptops. And Apple switched to Intel graphics silicon in the latest MacBook Air models and dropped Nvidia, whose graphics-centric chipset had been inside previous generations of Airs.

And Intel is now on a crusade to build power-efficient chips, evidenced by the creation of a $300 million fund to spur the development of Ultrabooks, which are an emerging category of very thin laptops that use Intel's most power-efficient "ULV" (ultra-low voltage) chips.

Intel is also working toward the 2013 debut of a very power efficient chip dubbed "Haswell," that the company is calling a system-on-a-chip, the same kind of highly-integrated design that is used in ARM-powered smartphones and tablets. Haswell is considered important because it is based on Intel's mainstream X86 architecture--the same as Sandy Bridge and its successor, Ivy Bridge--not on the less-well-received Atom processor.

And there was another side to Jobs relationship with Intel, particularly its highly-respected former CEO Andy Grove. Isaacson describes Grove as a "mentor" to Jobs.

Rodman & Renshaw analyst Ashok Kumar agrees. "Jobs was very deferential to Andy Grove. Jobs looked up to him," said Kumar.

 

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