Opinion: Why Bob Mansfield was cut from Apple's executive team

The ongoing feud makes it imperative for Apple to stop giving Samsung money, but it's easier said than done, as Bob Mansfield can attest.

Bob Mansfield, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Technologies, has disappeared from the executive management team at Apple. AllThingsD reported that Apple company spokesman Steve Dowling told them:

"Bob is no longer going to be on Apple’s executive team, but will remain at Apple working on special projects reporting to [CEO] Tim [Cook]."

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Mansfield may be leaving because of a systemic problem in electronics, described in industry parlance as "real men own fabs." Fabs meaning semiconductor production facilities. Apple has gone the fabless route, relying on third parties to build its chips. Ten years ago, Apple chose Samsung as its partner to build many of its mobile system-on-a-chip (SOC) processors. Apple has been trying to wean itself off of Samsung, but the Wall Street Journal reported that transferring its production to TSMC has caused some production glitches.

Only last October, Mansfield was widely reported to have been convinced to return from retirement by Apple CEO Tim Cook for a two-year stint. Apple announced at the time:

"Bob Mansfield will lead a new group, Technologies, which combines all of Apple’s wireless teams across the company in one organization, fostering innovation in this area at an even higher level. This organization will also include the semiconductor teams, who have ambitious plans for the future."

In the same WSJ story, Mark Newman, an analyst at Sanford Bernstein in Hong Kong, estimated that Apple spent roughly $10 billion in purchases from Samsung last year. Given the contentious relationship between the two companies in court and in the market, Apple has wanted to reduce its dependence on Samsung. Mansfield's group was to have played a major role in this.

For many companies, owning its own semiconductor manufacturing capacity isn’t economically viable because it costs $2-to-$5 billion to build a state-of-the-art fab. And most companies don’t need to control their own production.

But in the most competitive markets, like those for mobile devices, it’s critical to control the design through production cycle. These SoC chips integrate many functions on a single piece of silicon, such as the processor brains and broadband radio that connect to the mobile phone and data networks. Designing multiple components onto a single chip increases speed and reduces cost. Successively miniaturizing the SoC reduces power consumption.

In the cutthroat mobile market, speed, agile communications, and low power are critical. A company that owns its fab has more options to optimize its chip design beyond the basic layout. How a chip works is partly dictated by its design and partly by how it is built, especially when challenged by the implementation complexity of combining digital circuits for the processor and the analog circuits for radios while simultaneously making them smaller. Sometimes, perfectly designed SoCs don’t work when produced, and it is up to the production team, with its extensive experience in materials science, chemistry, and the nuances of production, to turn the right dials and knobs to get the design to work.

It looks like Mansfield has been held accountable for the TSMC production glitches and the persistence of Apple’s dependency on arch competitor Samsung for its most strategic components - the SoC heart and brains of its mobile devices.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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