The fates of Apple and Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturer TSCM have been inseparably intertwined since the advent of the iPhone. As each subsequent iPhone generation sped past the technological capabilities of its predecessor, the processors that powered them became increasingly complex and specialized – to the point that TSCM is now the only chip factory in the world with the necessary tools and know-how -how is. how to actually build them. In his new book Chip War: The battle over the world’s most critical technology, Economic historian Chris Miller examines the rise of processor production as an economically critical commodity and the national security implications that these global supply chains could have for America.
excerpt from Chip War: The battle over the world’s most critical technology by Chris Miller. Reprinted with permission from Scribner. Copyright 2022.
The biggest beneficiary of the rise of foundries like TSMC has been a company most people don’t even know designs chips: Apple. However, the company that Steve Jobs built has always specialized in hardware, so it’s not surprising that Apple’s desire to perfect its devices also includes control of the silicon inside. Ever since his early days at Apple, Steve Jobs has thought deeply about the relationship between software and hardware. In 1980, with his hair almost to his shoulders and his mustache covering his upper lip, Jobs gave a lecture asking, “What is software?”
“The only thing I can think of,” he replied, “is that software is something that changes too quickly, or you don’t know exactly what you want yet, or you haven’t had time to put it into hardware integrate.”
Jobs didn’t have time to pour all of his ideas into the hardware of the first-generation iPhone, which used Apple’s own iOS operating system but outsourced the design and manufacture of its chips to Samsung. The revolutionary new phone also had many other chips: an Intel memory chip, an audio processor developed by Wolfson, a modem for connecting to the cellular network from the German company Infineon, a Bluetooth chip developed by CSR and a signal amplifier from Skyworks. among other. All were designed by other companies.
As Jobs introduced new versions of the iPhone, he began carving his vision for the smartphone onto Apple’s own silicon chips. A year after the iPhone’s release, Apple bought a small Silicon Valley chip design company called PA Semi, which had experience in power-efficient processing. Apple soon began hiring some of the best chip designers in the industry. Two years later, the company announced that it had developed its own applications processor, the A4, which it used in the new iPad and iPhone 4. Designing chips as complex as the processors that power smartphones is expensive, which is why most low- and mid-range smartphone companies buy off-the-shelf chips from companies like Qualcomm. However, Apple has invested heavily in R&D and chip design facilities in Bavaria and Israel, as well as in Silicon Valley, where engineers design its latest chips. Now, Apple not only develops the main processors for most of its devices, but also add-on chips that run accessories like AirPods. This investment in specialized silicon explains why Apple’s products work so smoothly. Within four years of the iPhone’s release, Apple was deriving over 60 percent of all global profits from smartphone sales, edging out rivals like Nokia and BlackBerry and leaving East Asian smartphone makers to compete in the low-margin budget phone market.
Like Qualcomm and the other chip companies that fueled the mobile revolution, Apple isn’t building any of these chips, even though it’s developing more and more silicon. Apple is known for outsourcing the assembly of its phones, tablets and other devices to several hundred thousand assembly line workers in China, who are responsible for screwing and gluing tiny parts together. China’s ecosystem of assembly plants is the best place in the world to build electronic devices. Taiwanese companies like Foxconn and Wistron, which operate these facilities for Apple in China, are uniquely able to manufacture phones, personal computers and other electronic devices. Electronics assembly plants in Chinese cities like Dongguan and Zhengzhou may be the most efficient in the world, but they’re not irreplaceable. The world still has hundreds of millions of subsistence farmers willing to put components into an iPhone for a dollar an hour. Foxconn assembles most of its Apple products in China, but also builds some in Vietnam and India.
Unlike assembly line workers, the chips in smartphones are very difficult to swap out. As transistors have gotten smaller, they have become increasingly difficult to manufacture. The number of semiconductor companies that can build cutting-edge chips has dwindled. Up until 2010, when Apple released its first chip, there were only a handful of cutting-edge foundries: Taiwan’s TSMC, South Korea’s Samsung, and – perhaps – GlobalFoundries, depending on whether they would manage to gain market share. Intel, still the world leader in shrinking transistors, continued to focus on building its own chips for PCs and servers rather than processors for other companies’ phones. Chinese foundries like SMIC tried to catch up but were years behind.
For this reason, the supply chain for smartphones looks very different from that for PCs. Both smartphones and PCs are largely assembled in China, with high-quality components mainly being developed in the USA, Europe, Japan or Korea. In PCs, most processors come from Intel and are manufactured in one of the company’s factories in the US, Ireland or Israel. Smartphones are different. They are crammed with chips, not just the main processor (which Apple designs itself), but modem and radio frequency chips for connecting to cellular networks, chips for WiFi and Bluetooth connections, an image sensor for the camera, at least two memory chips, chips that Detect motion (so your phone knows when you turn it horizontally), as well as semiconductors that manage battery, audio, and wireless charging. These chips make up most of the bill of materials needed to build a smartphone.
As semiconductor manufacturing capacity moved to Taiwan and South Korea, so did the ability to make many of these chips. Application processors, the electronic brains in every smartphone, are largely manufactured in Taiwan and South Korea before being sent to China for final assembly in a phone’s plastic body and glass screen. Apple’s iPhone processors are entirely made in Taiwan. Today, no company other than TSMC has the skills or manufacturing capacity to build the chips Apple needs. The text etched on the back of each iPhone – “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China” – is highly misleading. In fact, the iPhone’s most irreplaceable components are designed in California and assembled in China. But they can only be made in Taiwan.
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