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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella addresses shareholders at the company’s Dec 2017 annual meeting. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella trotted out many of his usual lines during an interview this morning, but, unprompted, also chose to address an area he usually doesn’t talk about: silicon.

Speaking at Morgan Stanley’s Tech, Media, and Telecom Conference this morning in San Francisco, Nadella chose to highlight his company’s work on silicon in response to a question about why company culture is so important to innovation. “At this point it’s clear as day, whether you’re doing things on the edge or doing things on the cloud, you need to have silicon capability,” he said. (A replay of his comments is available here.)

Microsoft has talked about its chip work in the past, mostly involving its Xbox team. But it also designed its own AI-friendly programmable processors to complement Intel’s standard server chips at a time before Intel embraced that design philosophy. And persistent rumors have cropped up over the years that the company has considered designing its own server processors around the ARM architecture, rumors that have also been linked to Amazon Web Services and Google. Earlier this month, Google released its CloudTPU AI processor in beta stage.

Edge computing — a near-constant Nadella talking point over the last year — could require different types of chip designs as it evolves. Edge computing involves transferring more of the processing workload to connected devices far from central cloud data centers, and those devices have very different power consumption and reliability needs than the chips found in the thousands of racks of data-center servers.

“If I look at the sophistication with which the margin structure of the cloud business is going to change, it’s going to be around how smart are you with silicon,” Nadella said. With that in mind, he said has worked to install a culture that welcomes some of the best chip designers in the world, who just five years ago probably would have raised an eyebrow at the notion of working for one of the tech industry’s pioneering software companies.

And rather than separate Xbox or cloud chip teams, “We have one capability of people who are able to tape out new silicon, which can help us in our innovation,” Nadella said. The “tape out” stage of the chip design process is the last step before those designs are sent off for manufacturing, and based on his comments, we might be seeing more custom silicon emerge from Redmond in the months and years to come.

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