Could this ex-Intel hire portent custom Google Chromebook chips?

On its Cloud Blog today, Google introduced Uri Frank its new VP of Engineering for server chip design. However, this doesn’t preclude future efforts that would support rumors of custom Google Chromebook chips. Frank has 25 years of experience leading the design of custom CPU chips and was most recently the head of Intel’s Core & Client Development Group.

Much of Google’s news is related to general computing advancement but it’s clear that Frank’s initial priority will be in Google Cloud infrastructure. It makes sense for custom silicon in Google data centers for AI, ML, and big data as the cloud matures:

Compute at Google is at an important inflection point. To date, the motherboard has been our integration point, where we compose CPUs, networking, storage devices, custom accelerators, memory, all from different vendors, into an optimized system. But that’s no longer sufficient: to gain higher performance and to use less power, our workloads demand even deeper integration into the underlying hardware. 

Cloud hardware aside, Chrome OS is actually part of the Google Cloud organization at Google. And here’s where Frank’s expertise could fit in to the Chromebook hardware world: Custom designed systems-on-a-chip optimized for the best Chrome OS experience possible.

Indeed, after buying and using an Apple M1 MacBook that uses Apple’s own custom SOC based on the ARM architecture, I think it’s even more likely that Frank’s hire eventually brings Google silicon to Chromebooks.

If not, Google becomes completely reliant on and limited by, its CPU partners such as Intel, AMD, Samsung, MediaTek, and others.

Apple M1 capabilities

Here’s how I see it.

Google already controls the software stack of Chrome OS. Hardware partners typically can’t add bloatware or their own customizations. This ensures that every Chromebook works like and provides the experience of every other Chromebook. The only difference is in the form factor and underlying hardware such as the processor, memory & storage capacity, and display.

And Google already tests and certifies the hardware options. A company like Dell or HP, simply can’t design all the interls of their own laptop and slap Chrome OS on it. Google itself does all of the integration work to ensure the software and hardware work together. But again, the company has to deal with the limitations of the hardware vendors.

If Google wanted to certify a Chromebook board to use some new technology not yet supported by the processor being used, for example, it simply can’t. But if Google could build a custom chip that does support the technology, that limitation is removed.

It’s a more Apple-like approach. And whether you’re an Apple device fan or not, it’s hard to argue the benefits of controlling both the hardware and software stack.

Samsung Exynos

Yes, Google could work an existing ARM partner to bring its own “branded” processors to Chromebooks. The early rumors were that Samsung would be that partner.

But if Samsung designs it for multipurpose use — think Android phones, tablets, and Chrome OS devices — it’s really not the optimized solution that would benefit Chromebooks.

It doesn’t matter who’s name is on the chip: If Google doesn’t take its Chrome OS expertise and design a chip to maximize performance and battery life, then it’s not a custom chip for Chrome OS.

Clearly, I’m taking a leap into the future on this news of Frank’s hire at Google. There’s as much chance I’m wrong as I am correct. But I’d really like to be correct on this one. With custom processors, Google can take Chromebooks to the next level, much as Apple has done with its latest MacBooks and MacBook Pros.

5 thoughts on “Could this ex-Intel hire portent custom Google Chromebook chips?

  • March 22, 2021 at 12:07 pm
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    ❝Chromebooks are actually part of the Google Cloud organization at Google.❞
    — OK, that’s sort of an unexpected bombshell revelation. We may need some soak time to process that.

    ❝Google could work an existing ARM partner to bring its own ‘branded’ processors to Chromebooks.❞
    — With the nascent market clout of Chromebooks, is it inconceivable that Google would choose to work with Intel to do something similar?

    Reply
    • March 22, 2021 at 12:17 pm
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      Unless something changed since I left in 2017, we were moved into the Cloud organization. I’ll double-check that; I know Osterloh’s team handles the hardware side but AFAIK, not the software side of Chrome OS. As to the second point, sure Google could work with Intel but I don’t think Intel would take focus away from the much larger general computing market for custom Chromebook chips.

      Reply
  • March 22, 2021 at 8:49 pm
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    @Kevin:

    I have mentioned this before … I am still skeptical that the Apple M1 prowess is due to designing macOS for the CPU. You could put Windows (on ARM) on the M1 chip and it would run just as fast as macOS. (Linux Mint and ChromeOS would run FASTER than macOS.) Instead, Anandtech had this article which pointed out that the M1 uses a large core design. Intel uses large cores for PC, workstation and server CPUs but small ones for their Atom line. (AMD does similar). Sun also used large cores for their SPARC chips that was used their workstations and servers. By contrast, the ARM Holdings-based designs that are used by Qualcomm, Samsung, MediaTek, Amlogic, Allwinner, Rockchip and the rest are small core ones that were actually meant for embedded systems, not PCs. Were Apple to use a similar small core design, the M1 Mac would perform no better than a Windows on ARM device like the Microsoft Surface Pro X.

    There are things that can be done with the ARM Holdings design to increase multicore performance, as Ampere has 64 and 128 ARMv8 core designs for servers. Similarly Amazon’s Graviton2 is based on ARM’s Neoverse, which also goes up to 128 cores. However, that would have real power/heat consequences, plus a great many consumer computing workloads – video gaming is a great example – are more dependent on single core performance. So unless Google can come up with their own large core design, the single core performance of any custom SOC that they create will continue to lag Apple, Intel and AMD.

    Reply
  • March 23, 2021 at 4:53 pm
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    the verb form is “portend”, not portent.

    Reply
  • March 25, 2021 at 3:19 am
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    I would like to see Google creating and designing chips for Chrome OS though I’m not sure how that will affect the OEMS supporting the OS.

    Reply

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