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Apple's Jobs: PA Semi to design iPhone chips

The engineers Apple acquired from PA Semi will be put to work designing the system-on-chips that will power future iPhones and iPods, according to Steve Jobs.

Apple may have taken a look at the future of mobile chip development and decided to forge its own path.

Future successors to the iPhone 3G might use a chip completely designed by Apple. Apple

The New York Times scored an interview with Apple CEO Steve Jobs following Monday's Worldwide Developers Conference keynote, and buried inside a rambling exchange about parallel processing and Mac OS X Snow Leopard was this little nugget about PA Semi, the chip company Apple acquired in April. "PA Semi is going to do system-on-chips for iPhones and iPods," Jobs told the Times.

System-on-chips, or SOCs, are pretty much what they sound like: complete computer systems on a single chip, including the processor, memory, graphics, networking, and all the regulator chips needed to manage things like power consumption. ARM's licensees, such as Texas Instruments, Samsung, and Nvidia build SOCs around ARM's processor cores for smartphones such as the iPhone, and Intel wants to head down this path with its Atom processor family.

It's well known that Apple has played an active role in the design of chips that go into its system for years, but the acquisition of Dan Dobberpuhl's PA Semi team means it will apparently play an even more active role in the future. Jobs has previously said that Apple acquired PA Semi for its talent and patents--not its products--but had not shared many details about its plans for that talent.

In an interview with Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang last week, we got to talking about mobile processors and the evolution of that market, and he insisted that Samsung, widely thought to be the processor supplier inside the iPhone, merely "fabbed" the chip. In his view, Apple was the chief designer of the ARM-based processor that's used to run the iPhone--and presumably the iPhone 3G unveiled Monday--with Samsung just providing the factory. The PA Semi engineers would allow Apple to draw up a complete design in-house and take it to a chip foundry without having to let any other mobile processor companies in on its plans, Huang said.

The companies that license ARM's instruction set are increasingly butting heads with Intel as the ARM community tries to move up from smartphones into more powerful mobile computers, and Intel tries to shoehorn its PC processing know-how into a mobile environment. There has been much speculation over the past year or so that Apple will one day add processors for mobile devices to the invoices orders it sends Intel every quarter for Mac processors, but the PA Semi acquisition apparently means Apple is prepared to go it alone.