Google may develop custom silicon for future Pixel products
Google unveiled its new Pixel smartphones — and a brand-new strategy for dealing with hardware and software integration in future Google-branded products. Going forward, instead of working with partners to brand devices as Nexus hardware, Google will handle all of its own design, including choosing the specific components that are baked into the device. First impressions from on-site journalists suggest the hardware is well-made and attractive. But the $649 and $769 price points for the Pixel (5-inch screen) and Pixel XL (5.5-inch) demand top-notch equipment if the company doesn’t want its debut smartphones to bomb.
Google has big long-term plans for its hardware, up to and including a potential plan to design its own silicon for future devices, according to Bloomberg. Right now, the Pixels are powered by a Snapdragon 821 — the most powerful iteration of Qualcomm’s Kryo CPU and Adreno graphics on the market, with a top clock speed of 2.34GHz and a max GPU clock of 653MHz. For the most part, the Snapdragon 821 is a clock-tweaked version of the Snapdragon 820, but the lower-power cores have gotten a substantial performance kick. Max clock has increased from 2.2 to 2.4GHz, or roughly 10%, while the lower-power core clock has jumped from 1.6GHz to roughly 2GHz, a 25% increase. That should make the Snapdragon 821 substantially faster than its predecessor in certain workloads.
Qualcomm has released its own extensive PR detailing the Pixel’s X12 LTE modem, Qualcomm’s Aqstic codec technology (if you don’t get the brand name, say it out-loud). The camera runs using Qualcomm’s Hexagon DSP rather than on the CPU. All in all, the Pixels are impressive devices, though we’ll have to wait for reviews to see if they can live up to the hype.
Google, however, may have bigger long-term plans than simply licensing an ARM design from Qualcomm or a stock core from ARM itself. The company has reportedly poured significant resources into building a hardware design team. According to Dave Burke, who runs Android engineering at Google, the company will eventually be able to ship its own custom silicon. That’s unlikely to happen any time soon, but it could upend the Android market if Google ever goes down that road.
The reason it won’t happen in the near future is because designing SoCs is a long-term endeavor. Historically, it takes four to five years for a semiconductor company to move a chip from the drawing board into consumers’ hands. Apple bought PA Semi in 2008 and began shipping custom SoCs relatively quickly, but these chips were only custom inasmuch as they had specific I/O blocks rather than a general set of capabilities. Apple didn’t launch its first new CPU architecture until four years later, in 2012. AMD’s Zen initiative began in 2012 and the chip is expected to launch in Q1, putting it at 4.5 years. It only took Intel a little over three years to move from the Pentium M to the Core 2 Duo (March 2003 – July 2006), but Atom took roughly four years to develop as well, from 2004 to 2008.
If Google goes this route, it could jeopardize its long-term relationships with other Android vendors. The company has pledged to treat its own devices just as it would treat partner hardware built by any manufacturer. But if Google controls both Android and (potentially) its own silicon design, the company could tailor its hardware directly to its software and vice-versa. Low-level optimizations could yield significant performance improvements.
Google, to the best of our knowledge, would be the first consumer company to control both its own operating system and complete development of the underlying hardware. Remember Apple was never the sole developer of the 680×0 or PowerPC, while Microsoft allied with Intel and to a lesser extent, AMD. IBM both designs its own hardware and controls its mainframe operating systems, but these can scarcely be considered consumer products. Google is openly targeting Apple and the iPhone, but there’s a very limited amount of profit in the current Android ecosystem, and Samsung currently earns most of it.
Google claims that all of its hardware partners are completely on-board with Pixel and the company’s push into hardware. But the various Android OEMs are scarcely going to broadcast their own unhappiness at the prospect of competing with its own OS developer. Samsung has long kept a toe in OS development and periodically launches new phones and devices based on Tizen. If we start seeing more activity around that project, it may mean Google’s various partners are less thrilled with the company’s newfound status as a hardware manufacturer than they’ve publicly let on.