If Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) fails to reserve a seat in the onrushing era of mobile computing, the chip titan isn't above using its technical expertise to ride the coattails of others.
The rumor mill has been awash with whispers that Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) might take its chip manufacturing business to Intel. The company runs some of the finest processor production lines in the world, after all, and often uses technologies that were developed in-house and are far ahead of anyone else.
Apple already uses straight-up Intel chips in its desktops and laptops, but its smartphones and tablets run on a competing architecture by ARM Holdings (Nasdaq: ARMH ) . Convincing Steve Jobs that Intel's Atom processors would be a better fit for those product lines is a tall order, particularly since Apple already invested $278 million in ARM-chip specialist PA Semi and another chunk of change in its own license to design ARM processors. Cupertino isn't known for abandoning investments like that.
But Intel might be willing to bend over backward for its high-profile customer.
Speaking at an investor event in London, Intel CFO Stacy Smith said that more manufacturing deals might be in the cards. Intel architectures would be his first choice, of course, but nothing is impossible.
Apple or even Sony (NYSE: SNE ) could come knocking with plans to make Intel-based custom chips at any time, and "that would be a fantastic business for us," said Smith. Move into other architectures where Intel would capture a smaller paycheck per chip, and it's still not a flat-out impossibility: "That would be a much more in-depth discussion and analysis."
This doesn't mean that United Microelectronics (NYSE: UMC ) and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (NYSE: TSM ) should re-up their corporate life insurance policies. Intel already dabbles in some contract manufacturing on the side by making reprogrammable chips for privately held designer Achronix. On the other hand, the company also directs some of its Atom manufacturing to those powerhouses of third-party chip making.
What Intel is trying to say here is, we'd be happy to fill some unused manufacturing capacity with other people's designs -- as long as the margins are right. We'll know that some big-name customer has talked the company into bending over backward if we ever see the company signing a license to manufacture ARM or MIPS Technologies (Nasdaq: MIPS ) processors. Until then, it's all gravy made possible by Intel's fantastic technology research.
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