Apple Quietly Snaps Up Chip Design Firm Intrinsity

Apple grabs a little design house that was apparently behind the iPad processor and is known for tools that help speed processor performance.

Apple has confirmed it purchased Intrinsity, a small semiconductor design shop in Austin, Texas, that specializes in making low-power, embedded processors. The rumor had been floating around since the beginning of this month but was only confirmed today to the New York Times.

Formed in 1997, Intrinsity has around 100 employees, according to its Wikipedia entry, and its main product is its Fast14 technology, a set of design tools for improving the signaling encoding in a chip, allowing a processor to run faster than its native design. The company's homepage wasn't reachable Tuesday.

This technology has been used in ARM, MIPS and Power Architecture cores, which Intrinsity licenses under the name of "FastCores." In July 2009, Intrinsity announced that it had developed in a 1GHz implementation of the ARM Cortex-A8 chip in partnership with Samsung, a very high clock speed for that chip.

Which is rather convenient, as the iPad's A4 processor is a custom ARM Cortex-A8 running at 1GHz and is produced by Samsung. Initial gossip, never confirmed by Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), was that the design team from PA Semi, who came on board in 2008 with that acquisition, were behind the A4 processor used in the iPad. But a number of reports say Intrinsity was in fact the developer behind the iPad's processor.

Apple did not return a request for comment.

"There were rumors even before Apple announced the iPad that the [CPU] design was being done by Intrinsity. I would say the events of the last month make that seem more likely," said Nathan Brookwood, research fellow with Insight 64.

Most of the work on the A4 chip was integration, Brookwood said, taking a lot of intellectual property like the ARM core, and making it all work together. He didn't believe the PA Semi crew would have had enough time to come up with something new.

"If Apple wanted to have its own in-house implementation of an ARM core and thought they could do better than what people do, they could have just taken a Coretex A8 or A9 and put that in a cauldron with other blocks of IP, that would take them more than 18 months," Brookwood told

PA Semi, meanwhile, may not be providing the return Apple expected when it bought the company for $278 million. P.A. Semi's founder and CEO Dan Dobberpuhl, a significant figure in semiconductor design, left Apple for start-up Agnilux of San Jose, Calif., late last year. At Agnilux, Dobberpuhl is among familiar faces; the Times noted that at least a half dozen ex-PA Semi staffers have left Apple to join the start-up, including one of PA Semi's leading design experts, Mark Hayter.

Bringing this whole story full circle is that Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), which seems to be on a collision course with Apple in the mobile space, purchased Agnilux last week for an undisclosed sum. Google hasn't disclosed its plans for Agnilux, in fact the search giant didn't even formally announce the purchase (it was confirmed by Google to a blog covering private equity issues).

Andy Patrizio is a senior editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

Tags: iPad apps, Apple iPad, iPad app, processors, ARM

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