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Apple’s Rivos lawsuit puts SoC design engineering into limelight

Apple’s legendary chip design story has a new twist: the Cupertino, California-based electronics behemoth has accused the stealth-mode startup Rivos of stealing its system-on-chip (SoC) designs, including silicon for M1 laptop and A15 iPhone chips.

Apple’s lawsuit claims that Rivos, which has hired over 40 former Apple employees in the past year, has committed trade secret theft of its homegrown chip designs. The lawsuit especially names two former Apple engineers as defendants in this case: Bhasi Kaithamana and Wen Shih-Chieh, commonly known as Ricky Wen.

Kaithamana, who has been with Apple for eight years, was a CPU implementation engineer managing CPU design for Apple’s SoCs before leaving the company in August 2021 to join Rivos. On the other hand, Wen, a CPU design engineer, had been at Apple for nearly 14 years. Apple alleges that Kaithamana and Wen took thousands of files with SoC designs and other confidential information to Rivos.

Rivos as well as Kaithamana and Wen haven’t yet commented on this development.

Apple also claims that other former Apple engineers performed similar acts of stealing SoC design secrets before jumping ship to Rivos. According to Apple, some of these engineers used apps with encrypted communications to transfer design information.

It’s a critical development as Apple claims to have invested billions of dollars in the development of powerful SoCs for Mac and iPhone devices. And such legal battles are nothing new at the company. In December 2019, Apple sued Gerard Williams III, a former chip executive at the company, for launching the startup Nuvia while still working at Apple. Nuvia develops processors for data center applications.

Now, Rivos, which largely avoided public attention since its inception last year, is alleged to have stolen Apple’s work on SoC designs spanned over a decade. This case, among other things, is likely to put the enigma of SoC design on the forefront. And apple’s ascendance to the chip design world as well.

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