Apple sues iPhone CPU design ace after he quits to run data-center chip upstart Nuvia

CEO accused of breaching contract with Cupertino, fires back in court

Apple is suing the former chief architect of its iPhone and iPad microprocessors, who in February quit to co-found a data-center chip design biz.

In a complaint filed in the Santa Clara Superior Court, in California, USA, and seen by The Register, the Cupertino goliath claimed Gerard Williams, CEO of semiconductor upstart Nuvia, broke his Apple employment agreement while setting up his new enterprise.

Williams – who oversaw the design of Apple's custom high-performance mobile Arm-compatible processors for nearly a decade – quit the iGiant in February to head up the newly founded Nuvia. The startup officially came out of stealth mode at the end of November, boasting it had bagged $53m in funding. It appears to be trying to design silicon chips, quite possibly Arm-based ones, for data center systems; it is being coy right now with its plans and intentions.

The startup is armed with a who's-who of semiconductor engineers and enterprise software experts. It was co-founded by ex-Google system-on-chip architect Manu Gulati, who also toured Apple, Broadcom, and AMD, and former Google, Apple, and AMD architect John Bruno, as well as Williams, who previously was an Arm fellow and Texas Instruments design lead. The company also includes former Red Hat chief Arm architect Jon Masters, Intel marketing veep Jon Carvill, and various other brains from across Silicon Valley.

Apple's forbidden fruit

Apple's lawsuit alleged Williams hid the fact he was preparing to leave Apple to start his own business while still working at Apple, and drew on his work in steering iPhone processor design to create his new company. Crucially, Tim Cook & Co's lawyers claimed he tried to lure away staff from his former employer. All of this was, allegedly, in breach of his contract.

The iGiant also reckoned Williams had formed the startup in hope of being bought by Apple to produce future systems for its data centers.

"Unfortunately, rather than exploiting the technology he was working on for Apple, Williams secretly considered how he could take an opportunity to exploit that technology from Apple," the filing stated.

"Williams boasted about starting a new company with technology that he was working on at Apple, that he believed Apple 'needed' and that he believed Apple would have no choice but to purchase."

Apple now seeks injunctions and damages against Williams for breach of contract and breach of duty of loyalty.

Hang on just a minute

Apple's side of the story, however, has been challenged by Williams, who accused the Mac giant of wrongdoing.

Last month, his team hit back with a counter argument [PDF] alleging that Apple hasn't a legal leg to stand on. The paperwork states Apple's employment contract provisions in this case are not enforceable under California law: they argue the language amounts to a non-compete clause, which is, generally speaking, a no-no in the Golden State. Thus, they say, Williams was allowed to plan and recruit for his new venture while at Apple.

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They also allege that Apple's evidence in its complaint, notably text messages he exchanged with another Apple engineer and conversations with his eventual Nuvia co-founders, were collected illegally by the highly paranoid iPhone maker.

"Apple has provided no indication that any of its employees have consented to electronic recordation of their text messages. Indeed, the Complaint is entirely devoid of allegations of consent or of facts supportive of an inference of consent," the filing stated.

"Thus, on the face of the Complaint, Apple’s collection of its employees’ text messages runs afoul of [California law], and the messages cannot be relied upon as evidence."

Neither Apple nor Nuvia had any comment to offer beyond the filings.

The case, Apple v Williams, was filed [PDF, annotations our own] in August though paperwork is still flying between the parties. A hearing is scheduled to be held on January 21 at 9am. ®

Speaking of chips... Intel CEO Bob Swan this month told the annual Credit Suisse technology conference 7nm Intel chips should be rolling off the fabs in Q4 2021, and the business may shift from wanting a 90 per cent share of the microprocessor market to 30 per cent of the total silicon market in order to avoid missing the boat on future technologies – as it did with mobile compute and 5G modems.

He also said producing 4G/LTE smartphone modems for Apple put pressure on his 14nm fabs, leading to shortages of PC processors as factories focused on high-margin server parts, the 10nm switchover, and baking said modems. A summary of his keynote is here.

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