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Google developing own CPUs for Chromebook laptops

US software giant ramps up hiring blitz for semiconductor and hardware ambitions



Google is joining the ranks of global tech companies racing to develop in-house chips. (Source photo by AP)

CHENG TING-FANG, Nikkei staff writer
September 1, 2021 12:00 JST

TAIPEI -- Google is developing its own central processors for its notebook and tablet computers, the latest sign that major tech players see in-house chip development as key to their competitiveness.

The U.S. internet giant plans to roll out the CPUs for laptops and tablets, which run on the company's Chrome operating system, in around 2023, three sources with knowledge of the matter told Nikkei Asia.

Google is also ramping up its efforts to build mobile processors for its Pixel smartphones and other devices after announcing it will use in-house processor chips for the first time in its upcoming Pixel 6 series, they said.

Google's growing focus on developing its own chips comes as global rivals pursue a similar strategy to differentiate their offerings. Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Tesla, Baidu and Alibaba Group Holding are all racing to build their own semiconductors to power their cloud services and electronic products.

Google was particularly inspired by Apple's success in developing its own key semiconductor components for iPhones as well as last year's announcement that it would replace Intel CPUs with its own offerings for Mac computers and laptops, two people familiar with Google's thinking told Nikkei Asia.



The new CPUs and the mobile processors that Google is developing are based on the chip blueprints of Arm, the Softbank-controlled U.K. chip company whose intellectual property is used in more than 90% of the world's mobile devices.

Separately, the company has high hopes for the Pixel 6 range and has asked suppliers to prepare 50% more production capacity for the handsets compared with the pre-pandemic level in 2019, two people told Nikkei Asia. Google shipped more than 7 million Pixel phones in 2019, its highest figure ever, but shipped just 3.7 million phones the following year as COVID ravaged the world, according to research company IDC.

Google told several suppliers in recent meetings that it sees potential for massive growth opportunities in the global market because it is the only U.S. smartphone maker building handsets using the Android operating system.

Regarding chip development, experts say Google's strategy is a logical move but not without challenges.

"We found that all the tech titans are joining the foray to building their custom chips because in that way they could program their own features into those chips that could meet its specific needs," Eric Tseng, chief analyst with Isaiah Research, told Nikkei Asia. "In that case, these tech companies could easily adjust R&D workloads without being restricted by their suppliers and offer unique services or technologies. In an ideal scenario, using one's own chips also means better software and hardware integration."

However, building chips requires massive investment and long-term commitments, and all these new tech players building their own chips also need to fight for production capacity with existing top chip developers from Intel, Nvidia, Qualcomm and others, Tseng said.

Peter Hanbury, a partner at consulting firm Bain & Co., told Nikkei Asia that the cost of designing a cutting-edge 5-nm chip is now around $500 million, compared to about $50 million to develop a chip using more mature production technologies, such as 28-nm tech. "Very few players have the skills or financial resources to design their own chips, so the typical players considering this path tend to be extremely large players, like the cloud service providers, or have very valuable applications for these specially designed chips."

Google started to build its own silicon -- dubbed tensor processing units (TPUs) -- to facilitate its workloads for artificial intelligence computing for its data center cloud servers in 2016. It unveiled the fourth generation of TPUs this May. It is hiring chip engineers around the world, including in Israel, India and Taiwan -- all key tech economies -- and at home in the U.S., according to supply chain executives, employees and the company's job postings. Google has already hired chip talent from its key suppliers including Intel, Qualcomm and Mediatek, according to sources and a Nikkei Asia analysis of LinkedIn profiles.

Google is one of the world's most important developers of operating systems. Most of the world's top smartphone makers, including Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo, use the Android OS for their handsets. Google has also has licensed its Chrome OS to HP, Dell, Acer, AsusTek, Lenovo and Samsung to build Chromebooks, lightweight laptops mainly targeted toward the education market.

Google introduced Pixelbook and Pixel Slate, its own notebooks and tablets running Chrome OS, in 2017 and 2018, respectively, but annual shipments were less than half a million units, according to IDC data.

Global shipments of Chromebooks, meanwhile, nearly doubled last year thanks to the boom in remote learning spurred by the pandemic. Shipments continued to grow for the first half of 2021, through momentum has slowed sharply since July.

Google declined to comment beyond confirming its earlier announcement that it will use the Tensor mobile processors for its upcoming Pixel 6 handsets.

asia.nikkei.com
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