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Apple to use both Samsung, TSMC?

Posted: 18 Jul 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:A6 processors? foundry deal? FinFET?

Several reports have come out that Apple Inc. is going to drop Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd as the manufacturer for its iPad processors, the A6. There are also reports saying that Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Ltd. (TSMC) will be the alternative manufacturer of the A6. It was also mentioned that Intel is also eyeing to get the Apple foundry deal.

It is believed that the falling out between Apple and Samsung at the system-level was the reason why Apple is dropping Samsung. Samsung and Apple are rivals in the tablet and smartphone computers market. The two companies have also been trading patent infringement litigation in several countries. In April, Apple filed a suit against Samsung claiming that Samsung copied the look and feel of Apple products in its own media tablet and smartphone offerings. Samsung countersued Apple a few days later.

Samsung takes Apple battle to the ITC
South Korean firm Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd has filed a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) asking for an investigation of alleged patent infringement by Apple Inc. Samsung is also seeking an importation ban of Apple products into the U.S. Read the whole article here.

However, Samsung was a system-level competitor to Apple before it was taken on as a chip provider. So it does not necessarily follow that Apple will throw Samsung outalthough that is still possible. Indeed the very fact that Samsung has taken Apple to court might suggest that Samsung thought the A6 commission was already gone and it had nothing to lose.

Reports are now saying that TSMC is now running the A6 in one of its fabs on a trial basis. They say orders from Apple will depend on the yields achieved. Clearly Apple needs to satisfy itself that the number of wafers being committed to a process node will produce more than enough chips for its sales plans. But that also opens up other possibilities and begs the question as to what happens if yields are low or fall.

One possibility is that Apple could seek to qualify both Samsung and TSMC and operate them as mutual second-sources. Apple could then move orders between the suppliers to maintain downward price pressure.

After all, Apple already has multiple source suppliers of NAND flash memory. Indeed, some might argue that it is Samsung's ability to supply NAND flash memory has contributed to its success providing the current A4 and A5 processors to Apple.

Qualifying multiple sources does multiply the initial set-up costs. It is easier with standard product such as a memory and would not be undertaken lightly in the logic domain. In the past Apple has tended to use multiple sources of logic and mixed-signal chips in a serial fashion; designing a source of chips in for one generation of equipment and then giving the slot to a competitor in the next, but leaving the door open for the original manufacturer to get back in, if the product and the price are right. On the other hand the processor is the key component. The increased cost of double qualifying a processor might be compensated for by reduced unit costs and security of supply.

In addition, Apple might wish to apply lessons learned during the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 by second-sourcing the A6 processor.

Apple was the world's largest chip buyer in 2010 and is predicted to spend about $22.4 billion on chips in 2011. Above all other companies Apple would have insight into the impact the earthquake had on the supply chain and the cost and desirability of true second sources.

Of course, that does not mean that Samsung is safe or even has a chance of supplying the A6. The same multisource argument could apply to Intel and TSMC or even to all three companies. And Intel does have that rather attractive FinFET technology coming along.

- Peter Clarke
??EE Times

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