According to a report from DigiTimes, citing "sources from the semiconductor industry," the successor to Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone 5c, dubbed the iPhone 6c, will launch in the second quarter of 2016 and pack chips built on 14/16-nanometer FinFET manufacturing technology rather than Taiwan Semiconductor's (NYSE:TSM) 20-nanonmeter technology as originally planned.
If true, this has some interesting potential implications for both Apple and its chip manufacturing partners, TSMC and Samsung (OTC:SSNLF).
What does this mean for Apple and the iPhone 6c?
According to TSMC, its 16-nanometer FinFET Plus manufacturing technology offers 40% more speed at the same power or 60% lower power at the same speed relative to its 20-nanometer technology. Additionally, Apple probably made substantial architectural enhancements in its 14/16-nanometer A9 chip over its 20-nanometer A8 chip, further enhancing power efficiency.
In other words, expect a big performance boost from the iPhone 5s/5c phones that are currently in the market.
Furthermore, although I'd expect that Apple will reduce the frequency on an A9 inside a potential iPhone 6c relative to the A9 inside the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, there's still a good chance the iPhone 6c will wind up faster -- potentially significantly so -- than the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus phones currently in the market today.
This kind of performance, if true, would make the iPhone 6c a worthy successor to the 4-inch iPhone 5s in 2016.
Implications for the foundries?
If Apple is moving what should be a relatively high-volume design from TSMC's 20-nanometer technology to 14/16-nanometer technologies from Samsung and TSMC, then this would appear to be a slight win for Samsung at the expense of TSMC.
What's more interesting, though, is that Apple apparently seems comfortable enough to move what is a (relatively) cost-sensitive phone to more advanced chips built on newer manufacturing processes.
It would seem to me that Apple is successfully playing both Samsung and TSMC off each other to secure attractive pricing on 14/16-nanometer FinFET wafers. If this is the case, then Apple might be getting 14/16-nanometer wafers at prices similar to what it's paying for 20-nanometer wafers, potentially allowing it to make its iPhone 6c better while incurring minimal to no additional per-device cost.
Foundry competition is great for Apple, maybe not so great for the foundries
Apple, as well as other fabless semiconductor companies, seem to be set to benefit from the heightened competition between Samsung and TSMC to supply major customers with leading-edge semiconductor logic wafers.
These manufacturing technologies are expensive to develop, and capacity is quite expensive to build out. To justify these investments, the semiconductor foundries need to capture as much of the chip volume on the latest manufacturing technology from the big chip designers that outsource manufacturing as possible.
With Apple expected to ship somewhere in the vicinity of 230 million iPhone units in its fiscal 2015 and 250 million in fiscal 2016 (per Nomura Equity Research via Barron's), with many of those being Apple's latest phones with the latest silicon, Apple might just be the single most important leading-edge foundry customer out there.
Given Apple's importance to the semiconductor foundry landscape, I'd imagine that it gets very attractive pricing on leading-edge semiconductor wafers. If this is the case, then this not only allows Apple to consistently deliver better products to its customers year in and year out, but it should also be able to do so while keeping its robust gross-margin profile soundly intact.