Microsoft may be doubling down on its aspirations towards developing its own silicon to increase the competitiveness of its products. The company recently posted a job opening for its Surface division, asking for candidates for the position of "Director of SoC Architecture".
Understanding what this opening implies for Microsoft's efforts in the area is slightly harder - the company kept the language in the post general enough that there isn't a clear commitment to a strategy. This could either mean that Microsoft is looking for a lead for its in-house design silicon efforts, or that the company feels it needs to increase its engagement with chip design partners. Microsoft currently has two other, related job openings - one for a "Director of IP Architecture" and another for a "Lead SoC Competitive Analysis Engineer - Silicon Architecture".
As the company describes the job opening, the Silicon Architecture division as a whole is responsible for defining what features and capabilities of SoCs that get injected into Surface devices: "(...) The Surface team is lighting up Microsoft experiences with the next generation of devices. A fundamental part of our strategy is bringing productivity and mobility together through devices that enable new experiences – helping people and organizations unlock their creativity, passion, and potential." The company expects its Director of SoC Architecture to "(...) drive the Architecture in conjunction with Si Partners organizations of multiple technologies including but not limited to performance and power efficiency, thermal management, battery life, security, manageability, memory and storage, process integration and packaging to deliver exceptional product experiences across our entire portfolio."
Microsoft isn't a stranger to collaborative silicon design, as the company has multiple console launches in partnership with AMD under its belt. It has even partnered with Qualcomm (with its SQ1 and SQ2 processors) to adapt designs optimized for the Windows on Arm Surface push. However, there's only so much control and flexibility that Microsoft can have when working with other partners in adapting their IP to the company's needs. And with Apple having successfully transitioned to a de-facto silicon design company, the stakes - and attractiveness of a proven and well-executed transition strategy - are certainly high on Microsoft's list of strategic considerations. The advantage for software makers to design their own chips is pretty obvious - a "close to perfect" feedback loop of interacting hardware and software that can run circles around more general, "off-the-shelf" hardware designs. The material, research and development, as well as IP costs for silicon design are nothing to scoff at - but Microsoft has deep enough pockets to be looking at both options.
Considering Microsoft's efforts on the development of Windows on Arm, it's more likely that the company would be looking at adapting Arm's designs rather than completely creating an architecture from scratch using the RISC-V ISA - which Intel has already announced is exploring following its SiFive acquisition. Of course, Nvidia's ongoing attempt at acquiring Arm, which is still up in the air in the face of regulator scrutiny, may have thrown a wrench at those calculations. It remains to be seen what approach Microsoft is looking to favor, but one thing is certain: the Surface lineup will continue to evolve for the foreseeable future.