Intel looking at Apple's ARM chips, says analyst

An analyst's report suggests that Intel could be looking to up its presence in the foundry world by agreeing to make Apple's mobile processors in place of Samsung and TSMC - but would Intel really consider a return to ARM manufacturing?

Intel is no stranger to ARM chips: back in 1997 a lawsuit with DEC saw Intel buy the company's StrongARM chip line, which was used to replace its own ageing i860 and i960 RISC processor ranges. This chip would be developed into the XScale processor in 2000, before being sold off to Marvell in 2006.

Since then, however, the company has concentrated on the x86 CISC platform, with a smattering of IA64 Itanium processors just to keep its hand in at alternative architectures - with, it must be said, mixed success. ARM has gone from being a partner to an enemy, with Intel developing increasingly battery-friendly versions of its x86 Atom processors in a clear attempt at eating into ARM's market share in the mobile and embedded world.

A report by industry analyst Gus Richard of Piper Jaffray & Co., spotted by EETimes this week, suggests that Intel could be looking to get back into the ARM game - indirectly, at least.

According to Richard, Intel is courting OEM partner Apple - for which it produces the processors and chipsets that power its desktop and laptop lines - in the hopes of being selected to produce the processors that power the popular iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch range of portable devices.

These processors, the single-core A4 and dual-core A5, are currently produced by Samsung based on designs from British chip giant ARM. Apple, which has issued a lawsuit accusing Samsung of ripping off its iPhone design with the Galaxy range of products, is looking to move elsewhere, however - with Taiwanese foundry TSMC believed to be the current front runner.

At first, a partnership with Intel seems crazy: while the two companies collaborate on desktop and laptop platforms, Apple's mobile devices are an in-house affair using technology licensed from Intel's bitter rival ARM. Each A4 or A5 processor produced at an Intel factory would, therefore, profit its rival - hardly an ideal scenario.

Richard believes that Intel could be looking past this issue, however. "[A foundry partnership] makes strategic sense for both companies," he writes in the report. "The combination of Apple's growing demand and market share in smart phones and tablets gives Intel a position in these markets and drives the logic volume Intel needs to stay ahead in manufacturing,

"Furthermore, it would also serve to weaken Samsung who is a significant competitive threat to both companies," Richards claims - a strategic move that isn't a million miles away from some of the tactical partnerships both companies have availed themselves of in the past.

Intel certainly has form: while it has traditionally concentrated on producing its own processors, it opened its fabrication facilities to FPGA specialist Achronix back in November of last year, allowing the company access to its high-end 22nm manufacturing facilities. A similar deal with Apple for its A4, A5, and future chips seems a lot more likely now, since the Achronix deal went through, than at any time in Intel's recent history.

The deal would also give Intel the opportunity to analyse the ARM design used in the A4 and A5 processors in order to better compete with its own Atom range - potentially giving Intel the ability to create a chip which will knock ARM out of the iPad in favour of its own x86 chips.

While that's a long-term goal - with Apple needing to convert its iOS mobile platform from the ARM archictecture to x86, a task of not inconsiderable size - it would provide Intel with complete control over Apple's entire product range, giving it the same kind of partnership with the Cupertino company that it once enjoyed with box shifter Dell.

While the Dell deal didn't end well, a move to x86 for Apple's mobile product line would be a major coup in Intel's ongoing war with ARM - and could explain the company's sudden interest in fabbing the A4 and A5 chips.

Surprisingly enough, neither Apple nor Intel were available for comment at the time of writing.