Apple isn’t, at its core, a chip company, yet its silicon engineering group shipped four microprocessors in 2016, each paired to a new product, including the iPhone 7 and AirPods. Apple’s commitment to designing the very foundations of its hardware, rather than merely buying them off the shelf, gives it a sustaining advantage in creating the most compelling consumer-electronics experiences.
“We pick the projects where we feel like we can make a difference—the big customer-impacting features,” says Anand Shimpi, who works on hardware technologies at Apple. So the stunning depth-of-field effect from the iPhone 7 camera? That’s directly enabled by the new A10 chip. “The actual production of the stored portrait image is because of things that we put into the [image signal processor],” Shimpi says.
As Apple has expanded into new product lines, its silicon team has had to figure out how to realize the vision of the company’s systems and design teams. And it can’t just shove the A10 where it doesn’t belong. The S2 chip, for example, was developed to give the second-generation Apple Watch its lauded performance improvements without sacrificing battery life, and the magic trick of how AirPods simultaneously deliver music to two separate wireless devices is a direct result of programming embedded within their W1 chip.
“We want to improve without compromise,” says Shimpi. It’s this mind-set that helped Apple’s “rebuilding year” of fiscal 2016 generate more than $215 billion in revenue and almost $46 billion in profit.