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Why did Apple buy Maxim's fab?

Posted: 18 Dec 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:fab? biometric sensors? Touch ID? RF MEMS?

Apple's recently bought Maxim Integrated's 8in R&D fab, stirring a storm of speculations regarding the iPhone maker's plan.

Industry analysts' responses to the news ranged from "perplexing" (Tirias Research) to Apple's potentially "prototyping" at the newly acquired fab (Semico Research) new biometric sensors and/or RF switches the company needs for its world phones.

Apple, meanwhile, is keeping mum.

Regardless of its speculative nature, news like Apple's acquisition of Maxim's fab creates a great window to look into the wants and needs of the Cupertino giant.

Semico Research offered a few clues based on educated guesses.

First things first. The Maxim fab won't be where Apple makes any chips in volume. Whatever Apple is developing will need a fab partner later.

Touch ID, RF MEMS tuner

Noting that Maxim's fab was designed for mixed signal and power RF technologies, Tony Massimini, chief of technology at Semico Research, said Apple will likely use it to prototype new sensors, probably "using some technology it already owns." Apple, for example, owns Touch ID fingerprinting technology, since it acquired AuthenTec in 2012. "Apple could be working on a new biometric sensor with beefed up security, for example," Massimini suggested.

Another possibility is RF MEMS, according to Jim Feldhan, president at Semico Research and management consulting consultant.

RF MEMS is a good bet, considering the shortages in RF switches reported in 2014. Apple could be seeking a tunable solution to cover multiple bands and support carrier aggregation in disparate bands.

Massimini pointed out that most LTE smartphones use antenna-tuning to meet OEMs' and operators' performance targets across multiple bands, which has been a big challenge. Tunable solutions are especially needed in world phones in China, for example, he added.

RF MEMS tuners have been developed by companies like Cavendish Kinetics and WiSpry, but the technologies are still "in an early stage," according to Feldhan. "It's a reasonable thing to invest in."

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