Apple builds team in new office to make own wireless chips
Apple is hiring engineers for a new office in Southern California to develop wireless chips that could eventually replace components supplied by Broadcom and Skyworks Solutions.
The company is seeking a few dozen people to develop wireless chips in Irvine, where Broadcom, Skyworks and other companies have offices. Recent job listings show that Apple wants employees with experience in modem chips and other wireless semiconductors.
It's part of a broader strategy of expanding satellite offices, letting the tech giant target engineering hotbeds and attract employees who might not want to work at its home base in Silicon Valley. The approach also has helped Apple further its goal of making more of its own components.
Shares of wireless-chip makers slid Thursday after Bloomberg reported on the effort. Skyworks fell as much as 11%, marking its biggest intraday plunge since March 2020. Broadcom and Qualcomm Inc. declined more than 4% each.
Apple's interest in hiring talent related to a particular technology is usually bad news for the existing providers. The company has increasingly touted the importance of its in-house chip designs in making its products stand out. Intel Corp., the industry's biggest company, has joined growing a list of chipmakers that have lost their grip on Apple products.
In 2018, Apple started recruiting engineers in San Diego, home of Qualcomm. Two years later, Apple chip chief Johny Srouji told employees that the company is developing its own cellular modem to eventually replace Qualcomm's offerings.
An Apple spokesman declined to comment on the Irvine push. Representatives for Broadcom and Skyworks didn't respond to requests for comment.
The Irvine expansion is in its early stages, and Apple plans to increase its presence gradually. The company also is still working out its companywide return-to-office plans. Just Wednesday, Apple scrapped its Feb. 1 deadline for corporate employees to go back to in-person work.
But staffing up in Irvine is the latest sign Apple is bringing more technology in-house. Engineers will work on wireless radios, radio-frequency integrated circuits and a wireless system-on-a-chip, or SoC. They'll also develop semiconductors for connecting to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Those are all components currently provided to Apple by Broadcom, Skyworks and Qualcomm.
The effort builds on Apple's earlier work in wireless chips. The AirPods and Apple Watch already include custom parts that let them pair with devices, and Apple's latest iPhones include U1 ultra-wideband chips for more accurately pinpointing their location and connecting with the AirTag accessory and other products.
"Apple's growing wireless silicon development team is developing the next generation of wireless silicon!" one job listing says. Another says employees will "be at the center of a wireless SoC design group with a critical impact on getting Apple's state-of-the-art wireless connectivity solutions into hundreds of millions of products."
Apple, and particularly the iPhone, is a key source of revenue for chipmakers. In early 2020, Apple and Broadcom reached a $15 billion supply agreement for wireless components that ends in 2023. Apple accounts for about 20% of Broadcom's sales, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Skyworks is even more dependent on Apple, which makes up nearly 60% of its revenue, the data shows.
Irvine -- located in Orange County, south of Los Angeles -- is also home to wireless chip design offices for NXP Semiconductors NV, another company Apple could hire engineers from. Apple currently relies on NXP's near-field-communication chips for mobile payments.
The office also is near the University of California at Irvine, which is known for its engineering programs.
Apple will emerge from the pandemic in a less centralized form. While Cupertino remains the heart of the company, it has turned San Diego into a bigger hub. Apple has added headcount and expanded hiring there beyond chips to smart home technology, displays and software.
It's also expanding in Los Angeles, hiring employees to work on Apple TV+ and other digital services. And it has an office in Newport Beach, near Irvine, for development of augmented reality content from its NextVR acquisition.
Apple has a history of setting up offices near existing suppliers -- in some cases, as the first step toward eventually replacing them.
That includes its chip offices in Portland, Oregon, near Intel buildings, as well as its operations in Austin, Texas, and Orlando, Florida, where Advanced Micro Devices Inc. has campuses. And it's expanded in Haifa and Herzliya, Israel, where Intel has engineers, and in Munich, Germany, home to Infineon Technologies's headquarters.
Srouji has also pushed Apple to open new offices in Massachusetts, where Skyworks has offices, and Japan, where chipmakers like Toshiba Corp. have design centers. In 2018, Apple invested in Dialog Semiconductor, which specializes in power management chips, and acquired hundreds of employees and offices in the U.K. and Italy.
Last year, the company started transitioning away from Intel chips for its Macs, while also designing its own in-house camera and display technologies. Apple bought Intel's modem unit for $1 billion as well, setting the stage to replace the component from Qualcomm.
Apple's chip development strategy has allowed the company to build devices with unique features, helping its market value soar to nearly $3 trillion, and its chip unit is now considered one of its most prized assets. But the strategy hasn't been without its snags.
Apple had a public dispute with U.K. graphics chip designer Imagination Technologies Group in 2017 after transitioning to its own custom graphics processors. Apple's move left Imagination nearly bankrupt. In 2020, the two companies reached a licensing agreement.