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Intel switches ARM stance from 'No' to 'Maybe'

New wrinkle in Apple-Samsung spat

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Ten days ago, Intel CEO Paul Otellini told US investors that Chipzilla wouldn't use its new 22nm Tri-Gate process technology to build chips based on an ARM core. At a UK investors confab this Thursday, CFO Stacey Smith hedged on Otellini's emphatic "No".

If a customer came to Intel and asked them to fab processors that weren't built around the Intel architecture (IA), Smith said, that request would spark an "in-depth discussion and analysis," reports Reuters.

Smith's openness to such negotiations seems, at first blush, to be in stark contrast to Otellini's statements. When asked about fabbing ARM-based chips at the US investors meeting, the Chipzillian CEO responded: "The short answer is 'No'."

Understandably, Smith would prefer to provide his customers with Intel-designed cores. "If Apple or Sony came to us and said 'I want to do a product that involves your IA core and put some of my IP around it', I wouldn't blink. That would be fantastic business for us," he said.

But he wasn't as firm as Otellini when it came to non-IA cores. "Then you get into the middle ground of 'I don't want it to be an IA core, I want it to be my own custom-designed core,' and then you are only getting the manufacturing margin, [and] that would be a much more in-depth discussion and analysis," he told journos after the UK investor event.

Otellini's reason for not building ARM-based chips also involved margins. "We'd be beholden to someone else, we'd be beholden to ARM, we'd pay royalties to them, so it'd lower the overall profits," he told the US group.

Parsing the statements of both Intel execs, however, reveals that their statements are not, in fact, as contradictory as they may at first seem. Otellini stated that "We have no intention to use our license again to build ARM," while Smith spoke only of fabbing someone else's custom design – and if that design included an ARM core, the third party would pay the licensing fee.

Building, say, the Apple-designed ARM-based A5 processor using Intel's 22nm Tri-Gate process would net Chipzilla only a manufacturing fee, but the chip baker wouldn't be "beholden to ARM" for a licensing fee.

Samsung currently fabs the A5 for Apple, but that relationship has soured recently as a result of Apple suing the Korean giant for "slavishly" copying the iPhone and iPad's look-and-feel. In retaliation, Samsung filed patent-infringment lawsuits against Cupertino in three countries.

Add to that bad blood Friday's rumor that Apple is testing an A5-based version of its überpopular MacBook Air, and a possible deal that would result in Intel supplying Apple's growing need for the A5 might indeed lead to "in-depth discussion and analysis." ®

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