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Editorial: Apple's Ax SoC move from Samsung to TSMC can't happen fast enough

Apple's voracious appetite for powerful, efficient new chips to power its iOS devices, complicated by the tense relationship with its current supplier Samsung, is sparking a construction boom for Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. But why has it taken so long?


Apple's partnership with TSMC to produce new generations of its Ax line of ARM-based chips has long been understood to be at the core of the iPhone maker's plan to shift its component sourcing away from Samsung.

But Apple's very public problems with Samsung started back in 2010, and have continued through many months of negotiations and finally a series of extended court cases that have, so far, only reached the earliest stages of patent infringement findings.

Why does Apple still do business with Samsung after so many years of failed negotiations, bitter protracted trials and a series of massive ad campaigns where Samsung has both ridiculed Apple and its lined-up customers while at the same time claiming ownership of delivering the next "one more thing" that people might want to queue up to get?

To understand, one needs only look at the timing and scope of work required to plan, build and equip the massive chip fabrication plants necessary to make the switch away from Samsung. If moving Ax chip production to a new fab were easy, Apple would have already done it, just as it has moved to new component suppliers for parts including RAM and display screen.

Apple's Samsung Ax plans were put into place years in advance

While many of the details of Apple's chip partners remain secret for competitive reasons, it is known that in 2010, Samsung announced plans to spend $3.6 billion to expand chip production in Austin, Texas, resulting in the new S2 facility building 300mm silicon wafers in a 45nm logic process.

By October 2011, five months after producing its first silicon test wafers, the S2 plant was reported to have reached its intended capacity, churning out 40,000 wafers per month that could be cut into individual A4, A5 and A5X chips for use in mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad.

Production at the Austin S2 plant was coordinated with Samsung's S1 facility in Giheung, South Korea; S2 was reportedly dedicated exclusively to serving Apple's demand for chips, and Apple continues to be Samsung's largest customer.

Apple's A-series chips

This means that the chip supply for last year's iPads (including the A5X powered "new iPad") entered its advanced planning stages in 2010. To meet the incredible demand for tens of millions of iPads and additional tens of millions of iPhones, iPod touches and Apple TVs, Apple has needed to line up its supply chain years in advance.

Going forward, successive generations of Apple's Ax chips are going to be even more advanced, even as demand for Apple's mobile devices increases. This makes the task of sourcing an affordable supply of these parts increasingly difficult. Building more powerful chips using a smaller, more efficient process requires retooling facilities even as supply constraints demand the construction of newer, larger and more productive fabs.

Piloting the maiden flight of iOS, through lightning and gunfire

Apple's task of keeping up with the global demand for iOS devices (orchestrating the production of increasingly sophisticated chips in dramatically larger quantities) would be difficult enough if it were teamed up with a reliable components partner.

Instead, the company found itself under attack by Samsung, not only from the Galaxy smartphones cloned from Apple's own designs but also in the courts, where Samsung was demanding that Apple's devices be taken off the shelf due to dozens of patent claims related to industry standards such as 3G and WiFi technologies. So far, Samsung has lost or withdrawn every one of these claims. Defending itself from these retaliatory challenges, however, has kept Apple's executives taxed as they attempt to focus on their own goals.

At the same time, Samsung was spending record billions to saturate the airways with ads mocking iPhone users and depicting itself as the only true innovator, a message even the tech industry began regurgitating right up until Samsung unveiled its Galaxy S4 with underwhelming features that failed to dazzle the audiences it had prepared for Broadway-class showmanship.

Samsung's record billions of dollars in advertising and promotion had even convinced the tech media that Apple had at some point become the largest producer of phones in the world, and that Samsung was a scrappy underdog heroically fighting to stop the iPhone from tyrannizing Chinese workers and monopolizing the smartphone business.

This lead to reporters agreeing with each other that Samsung had recently "won back the lead" in phone sales from Apple. In reality, while Apple's iPhone rapidly became the most popular smartphone model in many global markets, Apple has never dominated the mobile industry in unit sales, not by a long shot. Apple has only ever led the mobile industry in profits and in the acrimonious critical scorn of pundits.

Source: Slide presented by @BenedictEvans

No other product ramp in the history of technology has been so maligned, browbeaten, slandered and falsely accused than Apple's iOS platform. From incredulous competitors who insisted at its unveiling that it was simply a hoax to analysts who spread stories that the original iPhone's new screen would suddenly decay after a few months, every successive model of iPhone and iPad has been viciously attacked as flawed, incompetent and the likely subject of a massive recall prior to each achieving record sales: from supposedly failing Infineon 3G chips in the iPhone 3GS to iPhone 4's AntennaGate to scathing criticism of iPhone 4S's Siri and iPhone 5's Maps.

On top of that, groups like Greenpeace misleadingly attacked Apple's leadership in environmentally sustainable manufacturing and operations, while major news outlets followed a one man show supposedly depicting the company's callous indifference to human rights and worker exploitation, two areas where Apple had long been working to improve things not only among its own suppliers, but in setting an example for its competitors to follow.

If the history of Apple's iPhone were accurately captured in a film, audiences would likely find the story completely unbelievable and simply walk out of the theater. And yet, as things play out in the real world, despite the company now accounting for the majority of profits in both the PC and mobile industries, the market has plunged Apple's valuation to 52-week lows in apparent anticipation that its stricken competitors might reanimate themselves and start actually competing with the company.

This is the context Apple has faced while working to transition its chip supply from Samsung to a new fab that doesn't threaten to use its own investments in production against it as a competitor.