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Samsung out, TSMC in as Apple's mobile processor supplier

Posted: 11 Jul 2014  Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:TSMC  tier one  FinFET  iPhone 6 

A report from the Wall Street Journal stated Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) began shipping mobile processors to Apple during the second quarter of this year and will continue through 2015.

"Apple makes all of its suppliers sign a vow of silence," said Nathan Brookwood, principal of market watcher Insight64. "There have been consistent rumours over the past year that Apple is going to turn to TSMC for the next microprocessor that's going to be used in the iPhone 6, which is rumoured to come out in September."

Although neither company has substantiated the reports officially, TSMC reportedly signed a deal with the iPhone maker last year to supply processors using its FinFET process at the 16nm and 10nm nodes, after beginning with 20nm planar CMOS. Until now, Apple's mobile SoCs have been made solely by archrival Samsung, which Apple sued for infringement of its iPhone and iPad patents.

Rumours that TSMC began shipping in earnest didn't surprise analysts. Brookwood said the move to TSMC may be a result of Apple's rocky relationship with Samsung. Analyst Peter Glaskowsky said Apple simply may be making moves to secure its supply chain.

"It's really important that you have continuity of supply for high volume devices... I think this is a question of making sure you have alternate supplies; occasionally there are issues with production because of earthquakes and floods," Glaskowsky told EE Times. "TSMC and Samsung are both tier one manufacturers. I have no doubt Apple can achieve the same results in terms of power and efficiency from both companies."

It's still possible Apple may use other foundries. Globalfoundries licensed Samsung's 14nm FinFET process for production next year, providing an alternative to TSMC for a process closely aligned with one Apple uses. The high volume, steep ramps for mobile products that have a 12- to 18-month life cycle creates pressure to have multiple fab suppliers.

"It's completely conceivable that [in] the generation that comes after the iPhone 6... [Apple] could move to Globalfoundries—its FinFET process should be in cards next year," Brookwood noted.

Whether Apple will split its devices among various foundries or allow for one large contract remains to be seen.

"It's just going to boil down to question of execution—how well can TSMC operate as a supplier for Apple. If they can deliver high performance, high efficiency chips to Apple, Apple will ship more chips with them," Glaskowsky said, adding that the race to 14nm will play a role. "TSMC has been under threat for decades now, a lot of people would like to be the world's largest contract fab."





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