Is there a marriage of convenience in the cards for Apple and Intel?

Apple wants to dump Samsung as a chip maker. Intel has an idle fab in Arizona. Could these guys work out a deal?

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There has been talk for some time about Apple partnering up with Intel so Apple can shift its chip production away from blood enemy Samsung, so a recent proposal from IC Insights wasn't exactly new, but it was a new twist on the rumors.

IC Insights, a semiconductor market research firm, has postulated that Intel to might be open to cut a deal with Apple to put its idle Fab 42 to use. Fab 42 was supposed to be a very large, advanced fab running in Chandler, Arizona, but Intel halted any further expansion after putting up just the walls and the roof.

Mothballing a fab is not an uncommon tactic, as I noted at the time. Micron once idled a plant for a decade. It's not like the place is filled with a few billion in advanced manufacturing equipment. The mothballing of the plant reflects the slowdown in Intel's business. In fact, Intel is shrinking when the rest of the IC sector is growing.

The company reported a 2% decline in IC sales while the worldwide IC market grew 6% growth rate in 2013, and Intel is expecting flat revenue growth this year, while the overall market will grow 7%. So Intel needs to find some revenue, and it's not getting it from Atom.

Apple, on the other hand, wants to get away from Samsun in any way it can. IC Insights estimates that Samsung took in about $3.4 billion worth of business for Apple on a foundry basis in 2013 alone. It has signed on to have TSMC manufacture some of its chips, but not all.

So now comes the proposed marriage of convenience. Intel has a fab that was intended to be capable of producing 40,000 300mm wafers a month (which translates to hundreds of chips per wafer) sitting idle and Apple needs more fab capacity than the overstretched TSMC has. Fab 42 was supposed to start up making 14nm chips and transition to 10nm. TSMC has a long track record of bumpy and clumsy transitions to smaller node processes and right now is at 20nm.

This would give Apple a huge advantage in having exclusive access to the most leading edge processing technology in the world and put it at least one to two years ahead of all of its competition. Don't think for a minute Tim Cook wouldn't love that advantage.

Of course, it's not all cut and dried. Such a deal would take years to execute. Intel would still need to spend billions on the advanced equipment to fill Fab 42. If Apple wants that fab all to itself, it would be expected to kick in a few bucks to help get it equipped. Even if Intel started today, it would take more than a year to get that fab going. Then there are the contracts with Samsung and TSMC. Apple can't just walk away from those, they have to be completed.

Finally, there are tangential issues, like IP protection and customization that Intel would have to work out. Intel has never made chips for anyone but itself, at least on a major level, and that's a whole new world of legalese and production. It can't make Apple's chips like it makes its own chips. Apple will want its own tweaks to its chips.

So it's not an easy process. It's possible, and makes sense on a lot of levels, but it won't happen tomorrow.

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