Apple Has 1,000 Engineers Working On Chips For The Post-PC Era

As we ponder what will happen to Apple without Steve Jobs, I keep coming back to a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a veteran Silicon Valley CEO who knew Jobs. This was just after Jobs had resigned as CEO of Apple. We got to talking about why Apple is so well-positioned in the post-PC era, and this executive zeroed in on something you don’t hear too often. “Steve Jobs told me he has 1,000 engineers working on chips,” he said. “Getting low power and smaller is the key to everything.”

The number was startling when I first heard it. I knew that Apple started building its own chip design team in 2009, but figured it had to be a few hundred people at most, not 5 percent of Apple’s non-retail workforce. (Apple employs more than 50,000 people worldwide, 30,000 of them in its retail stores). Apple started designing its own chips because Intel and AMD were still stuck in the PC era. Apple needs chips that are powerful enough, but also very low power.

Battery life is one of the most important features of a mobile device. Apple’s latest A5 processor, which first appeared in the iPad 2, will now power the iPhone 4S as well. Not only is the A5 twice as fast as the A4 in the current iPhone 4, but it slightly improves the battery life with 8 hours of talk time (versus 7 hours).

Not only are Apple’s processors extremely power efficient, but Apple is also removing the hard drives from its products and replacing them with flash memory chips. It’s not just iPhones and iPads, the MacBook Air’s storage is also flash. All of Apple’s products are moving in this direction. When you combine these two fundamental changes at the silicon level, “form factor no longer becomes an issue,” explained the Silicon Valley CEO.

You can put a computer into anything. Mobile phones and tablets, certainly. TVs, perhaps. But what else? It is only limited by the imagination of Apple’s engineers and what makes sense from a product point of view.

When Jobs retired, TechCrunch writer MG Siegler cautioned against focusing too much on the next iPhone. Jobs left Apple knowing that a string of post-PC products will be introduced in the years ahead. MG wrote:

It’s the longer roadmap that should really be the grand finale in the Jobs’ fireworks show.

Talking to sources in recent months, there has been one common refrain: that the things Apple is working on right now are the best things the company has ever done. These are things that will “blow your mind”, I’ve been told.

Jobs himself said when he resigned, “I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it.” Now we get to see what he meant by that. Jobs rebuilt Apple from the silicon up. It is the company itself which is his greatest product. And like all of his products, everything fits together: the chips, the hardware, the software, the industrial design, the developer platform, the tightly controlled manufacturing, the marketing, the retail stores.

This machine is proving adept at making and selling mobile computers—phones and tablets. But remember also that we are just at the beginning of the post-PC era. The iPhone launched 4 years ago, the iPad only a year and a half ago. It is becoming practical to put a computer into anything. Of course, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. And if anything, Apple is very disciplined about choosing what not to do (another Steve Jobs trait). But if you believe that post-PC devices will include more than just phones and tablets, it is not such a crazy idea that one day Apple will be churning them out as well.