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Apple said to dump Samsung as chip-baking partner – again

Yes, it's déjà vu all over again, but this time it might be true

A report coursing about the interwebs claims that Apple is dumping its iDevice chip partnership with über-rival Samsung, and has inked a three-year deal with Taiwanese wafer-baker TSMC and its "IC design service partner" Global UniChip to manufacture A8, A9, and A9X chips at the 20nm, 16nm, and 10nm process nodes.

This news comes courtesy of unnamed "industry sources" talking to the market-watchers and occasionally accurate rumor-mongers at Taiwan's DigiTimes, which reported on Monday that the A8 processor will appear in an iPhone slated for release in early 2014, and that TSMC "is scheduled to volume produce" the A9 and A9X in the third quarter of next year.

Seeing as how the iPhone 5 is powered by Apple's A6 SoC, and the current iPad has an A6X, you might reasonably ask, "What about the A7?" That chip, it's been widely rumored, is slated to appear sometime soon in the next iPhone, purportedly to be dubbed the iPhone 5S, and to be provided to Apple by Samsung.

Before you jump to the conclusion that DigiTimes' sources are correct, and that the Apple-Samsung partnership is now officially on the rocks and heading for divorce court, it's instructive to take a look at past pronouncements of such a split.

In May 2011, for example, rumors surfaced that Apple was contemplating a move from Samsung to Intel – which didn't happen. At that time, it was also reported that Apple had signed a deal to use TSMC as a second source for its A5 chips, used in the iPad 2 tablet, iPhone 4S, 5th-gen iPod touch, and iPad mini.

One month later, another rumor made the rounds that TSMC was manufacturing the A6 chip used in the iPhone 5 – if only as a second source. Samsung, however, continues to manufacture that chip, and word on the street was that it bumped the price that it charges Apple for it by 20 per cent late last year.

Another rumor last October, fueled by a report from the China Economic News Service (CENS), said that TSMC would fab quad-core 20nm ARM-based A-Series chips for Apple, with volume production "expected to start in the fourth quarter of 2013."

That last CENS-supplied rumor would be roughly in line with Monday's DigiTimes report. Confirmation, however, is elusive. As DigiTimes points out, "In response, both TSMC and Global Unichip said they do not comment on customer orders and statuses," and Apple, of course, has as its standard response to those naïve enough to ask for such confirmation: "We never comment on unannounced products."

Still, there was that shrunken A5 that surfaced in the Apple TV this March that could very well be a TSMC part. Also, ARM and TSMC announced in July of last year that they had signed "a multi-year agreement extending their collaboration beyond 20-nanometer technology to deliver ARM processors on FinFET transistors," a deal that saw its first fruit when the two companies taped out a 64-bit Cortex-A57 chip this April in a 16nm process.

Bottom line: despite what DigiTimes' sources may say, it's impossible to know what's going on in the minds of the inhabitants of the corner offices in Hsinchu Science Park, Taiwan; Seoul, Korea; and Cupertino, California. Three things, however, are certain: the stars do appear to be lining up for an Apple-Samsung divorce, TSMC would be the logical chip-baker to which Apple would move, and there is no love lost between the feuding smartphone makers.

As we see it, Samsung's loss may very well be TSMC's gain – and soon. ®

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