Apple has used ARM-based A-Series processors for several generations of the iPhone and iPad, but a rumour out of Taiwan this week has the company turning to Intel for at least a portion of its future mobile device chip production.
Does this mean x86-based chips will finally find a place inside Apple's best-selling iDevices? The short answer is an emphatic "no," at least in the near future.
Rather than a move to the Intel architecture akin to Apple's sea-changing switch from IBM PowerPC chips to x86 for its MacIntosh products in 2005-06, this rumoured move would utilise Intel's foundry services to produce some 10 per cent of Apple's future A7 System-on-a-Chip (SoC) parts, according to DigiTimes.
Those SoCs would presumably still be based on the ARM architecture, especially given Apple's major investments in the architecture, both materially and in terms of an evolved app ecosystem built around ARM. Further on down the road, say a few years out, is anybody's guess. Intel has arguably been making major strides in catching up to ARM in terms of producing competitive Atom-branded x86 processors for smartphones and tablets, which provide the kind of battery life mobile device manufacturers value.
For now, Intel is now being tipped to join Samsung and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) as a third option for Apple to manufacture future-generation, ARM-based A-Series chips. The breakdown of who would get what portion of Apple's chip fabrication business, according to DigiTimes, is 50 per cent for Samsung, 40 per cent for TSMC, and 10 per cent for Intel.
Such a move would make sense for Apple, particularly as Intel paves the way for a new semiconductor manufacturing process at the 14nm node, according to Patrick Moorhead, lead analyst for Moor Insights & Strategy.
"Apple needs Intel's manufacturing capabilities if it hopes to maintain its position in the marketplace," Moorhead said. "Many more competitors like Samsung and Huawei are now designing their own SoCs, and in Samsung's case, manufacturing them. This mitigates Apple's design advantage and they now need something different to be competitive and that 'something' is Intel's 14-nm capabilities."
"It would make perfect sense to see a 22nm 'pipe-cleaner' prior to 14nm parts. This mitigates TSMC risk and gets them ready for 14nm volume production," he said.
Intel's efforts to gin up a foundry business are already well-documented and it's actually been a couple of years since the chip giant reportedly started putting out feelers towards contracting with Apple on semiconductor production.
The crux of this rumour, of course, is the reasonable presumption that Apple wants to get Samsung off its contracting books as much as possible. The South Korean tech giant has been the sole manufacturer of A-Series chips for iDevices for years, but Samsung's booming business in Android-based smartphones has made it a major threat to Apple - and there's been no love lost between the two companies during their pitched battle over mobile device patents in various courtrooms around the world.