Google has hired a veteran chip architect away from Apple and is now looking to build its own chips for future versions of its flagship Pixel phone, Variety has learned from sources familiar with the hire. Manu Gulati, who had been spearheading Apple’s own chip developments for close to eight years, joined Google in the last few weeks. He publicly announced the job change on his Linkedin profile Tuesday morning, stating that he now works as Google’s Lead SoC Architect.
In addition to Gulati’s hire, Google is now looking to hire additional chip experts to tightly control future Pixel hardware. A Google spokesperson declined to comment when contacted for this story; Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gulati started working at Apple in 2009, and was instrumental to the company’s efforts to build custom chips for the iPad, the iPhone and Apple TV. Apple began using its own chips in 2010, starting with the introduction of the iPad in 2010, which was powered by the company’s A4 chip. To this day, the company uses custom-designed microchips for each of their devices, which make it possible to optimize processors both for performance and energy consumption. In the industry, these integrated chips for mobile devices are also known as SoCs, or “systems on a chip.”
In contrast, Google relied on a chip designed and manufactured by Qualcomm when it introduced its first Pixel phones last fall. The same chip is being used by a number of other Android phone manufacturers, including HTC, LG, Lenovo and Asus — all of which goes to say that these phones all offer very similar performance specs. Qualcomm has become the de facto-manufacturer for higher-end Android phone chips, making it harder for the companies to differentiate their devices from one another.
Hiring Gulati could now help Google to get an edge over other companies. Losing him, on the other hand, is a significant blow for Apple. The Cupertino-based computer maker filed a total of 15 chip-related patents that credit Gulati as one of the inventors. Some of these filings describe fundamental chip architecture, while others are more specific to certain applications. For example, one of his patents described hardware-based security for Apple Pay that securely stores a user’s fingerprint on the iPhone.
Google’s desire to eventually design its own chips for mobile devices has been reported for some time. Back in 2015, The Information reported that the company had conversations with chip manufacturers about building Google-designed chips. And last year, Bloomberg reported that Google planned to eventually power Pixel devices with its own microchips.
These efforts seem to have gained some significant steam in recent months. Coinciding with Gulati’s hire, Google has started to post a number of job offers for chip design-related positions, including one for a “Mobile SoC CPU Architect” and a “Mobile SoC Architect,” who will “help define the architecture of future generations of phone and tablet” chips.
Up until recently, this wasn’t too much of a problem for Google. The company’s previous Nexus phones were primarily aimed at Android enthusiasts, and a way for Google to push the industry to adopt the latest and greatest that Android could offer. Nexus phones often didn’t even pack the latest chips, and instead aimed for lower pricing and a better software experience. But in 2016, Google began to shift its mobile device strategy to take on Apple directly with its new premium Pixel phones.
At the same time, the industry underwent fundamental changes that put a bigger onus on phone hardware itself. Phones nowadays aren’t just for texting and web browsing anymore, but are increasingly being used to power virtual reality headsets and augmented reality experiences. What’s more, applications powered by machine learning require companies to shift some of their smarts from the cloud — where Google’s tech used to shine — to local devices to adapt to voice and visual input with no notable latency.
Apple drove home this point during its most recent developer conference, where the company’s SVP of software engineering Craig Federighi claimed that the iPhone is six times faster at image recognition than Google’s Pixel phone.
Google’s VP of Android Engineering Dave Burke actually embraced some of the same logic when he demonstrated Google’s progress in machine learning for mobile devices at his company’s Google I/O developer conference in May. Some of the examples shown by Burke included a feature in the next version of Android that automatically recognizes which words in a text constitute an address, making it easier to copy and paste addresses from emails and text messages. This kind of text recognition is done on the device, in real time, and Burke said that Google is looking to hardware-accelerate this kind of functionality in the future.
To integrate machine-learning optimized signal processors directly into a phone’s main chip, Google needs to closely control the design of that chip. Gulati’s expertise could be essential to these efforts. His Linkedin profile shows that before joining Apple, Gulati worked for close to 15 years at chip makers AMD and Broadcom, giving him a total of 27 years of experience in the industry.