Apple’s global web of R&D labs doubles as poaching operation

In recent years, Apple Inc has quietly put together a global network of small research and development labs, from the French Alps to New Zealand.  

Nothing unusual about that for a company that spends US$11bil (RM46.17bil) a year on R&D. Look a little closer, however, and you’ll notice that many of these labs are located near companies with a strong record in mapping, augmented reality and other areas Apple is pushing into. In several cases, these companies lost employees to Apple not long after the iPhone maker came to town. Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller declined to comment. 

Let’s take a tour. 

In early 2016, Apple opened an office in the German capital, located not two miles from HERE, a maps company that Nokia Oyj sold to a consortium of German carmakers in 2015. Today, Apple’s lab is mostly staffed by former HERE software engineers. Apple has since rolled out improvements to its Maps app intended to make in-car navigation easier, exactly the competency that prompted BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler to acquire HERE to begin with. 

Just last week, Apple posted a job listing for a software engineer in Denver specialising in mapping. Back in May, local media reported the company was close to securing office space in a building that just happens to be two blocks from the headquarters of Verizon Communications Inc’s Mapquest unit. 

Grenoble, France
Apple opened a 20-person office last year in a former chocolate factory on the edge of the Alps. Just down the road is a major R&D facility belonging to the Franco-Italian chipmaker STMicroelectronics. Local newspaper Le Dauphiné Libéré reported that Apple was building a clean room dedicated to developing imaging chips based on STMicro technology. The most recent crop of iPhones feature an improved camera, a key selling point for many consumers. 

Hertfordshire, England
The office Apple opened last year in Hertfordshire is just seven miles from the headquarters of Imagination Technologies, a graphics chip designer that then counted Apple as its biggest customer. In April, Imagination revealed that Apple would no longer use its chips in new products, tanking its shares. Even before the investors rushed for the exits, Imagination engineers had already been leaving to work down the road at Apple. The iPhone maker’s jobs website now lists 16 openings in the area related to graphics chips. 

Longtan, Taiwan
The Longtan lab, whose opening Bloomberg News reported in 2015, focuses on display technologies that could reduce Apple’s dependence on Samsung, the main supplier of the organic light-emitting diode displays used in the new iPhone X. Apple’s building was formerly occupied by AU Optronics Corp and Qualcomm Inc, and engineers joined Apple from both companies, people familiar with the moves said at the time. 

Giant chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices Inc has long had an R&D lab in the Florida city. A few years ago, Apple opened its own research facility half a mile away. A LinkedIn search shows that 32 Apple engineers in the area formerly worked at AMD, many of them on graphics processor units, the chips which power images, games and videos. The fruit of those hires, made over the past five years, became apparent this month when a GPU of Apple’s own design surfaced in the iPhone 8. 

BlackBerry Ltd’s QNX division sells car operating systems to many of the world’s leading carmakers, and much of the work for that software is done at an office in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata. Apple last year opened a nearby site where some two dozen former QNX engineers now work on Apple’s own car operating system. 

Since the beginning of last year, Apple has quietly hired a handful of engineers from Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, the visual effects house behind The Lord of the Rings, Avatar and The Planet of the Apes. The team is part of the augmented reality division Apple created in 2016 to develop smart glasses that may ultimately supplant the iPhone, according to a person familiar with the operation. — Bloomberg