Apple has had tremendous success with its iOS devices by licensing ARM’s instruction sets and manufacturing their own mobile chips. But the news that SoftBank plans to buy ARM has caused many in the Apple community to wonder how the sale might affect Apple’s products, and if Apple should try to buy ARM.
I’ll share my own thoughts below, but the topic also came up in a recent thread in the Apple subreddit, and there were some interesting comments posted:
WinterCharm: “What does this mean for Apple’s custom ARM-based designs?”
Dfmz: “SoftBank is a longtime partner of Apple’s and there’s no reason to think they would change anything to that relationship, especially if said relationship brings the added bonus of mass-producing strategic chips for Apple.”
Kare_kano: “First of all, the takeover has been confirmed.
Apple aren’t idiots and are very careful to control everything they need for their devices and services. If they think this takeover is a problem for them they can come up with a bid of their own, they certainly have the resources to buy ARM.
They probably also have a backup plan. Their latest iPhone CPUs use a Twister core which is based on a ARMv8-A-compatible architecture licensed from ARM, but are designed in-house by Apple and manufactured by two competing foundries (Samsung and TMSC), for redundancy.”
ExultantSandwich: “How is that a backup plan? If Softbank stops licensing out ARM reference designs isn’t Apple forced to look elsewhere? It doesn’t matter that they design and manufacture the chip, the underlying tech is owned by Softbank.
At least that is my impression of things. I don’t think Softbank would ruin the business by refusing to license their tech, but stranger things have happened. I just don’t see how Apple has a backup plan in the example you presented.
Correct me if I’m wrong.”
“1. The whole business model of ARM is IP licensing.
2. ARM has something called “perpetual license”.
3. The manufacturing rights of all licenses are perpetual.
It takes several years for the “rejection” to be realised in the product pipeline, and the time is enough to plan for another migration. Let alone the possibility that Apple licenses ARMv8 perpetually, so unless ARM comes up with a v9 which probably won’t exist in 1–2 decades. Well…
Do you think Apple’s lawyer would be stupid enough to sign a licensing contract that does not have terms to protect them from such sudden withdrawal of license?”
Kare_kano: “It’s really no use speculating in this vein. Apple’s ISA licensing from ARM is not revokable, and ARM is getting money for every iPhone sold. Even if for some strange reason the new owners decided to halt providing new licenses, or offered them under revised bad terms, Apple has no problem right now.
ARM’s new designs are interesting only when they come up with new architectural developments, but otherwise you can design your own. Which is exactly what happened lately, with ISA licensees like Apple coming up with way better designs than ARM. What they’re paying for at this point is basically instruction set compatibility, they don’t need ARM’s designs anymore.
Will Apple buy ARM?
I’m no expert on Apple’s contracts with ARM, but if Maizirinid’s comment above is correct then SoftBank buying ARM shouldn’t be a problem for Apple in the short term. It seems that Apple’s ARM licensing would not be threatened by SoftBank.
However, we all know that Apple is a serious control freak company. Apple simply may not like the idea of SoftBank having ownership of ARM. If that's the case then it's not outside the bounds of possibility for Apple to make its own bid for ARM. Apple certainly has enough money to make a serious offer for ARM.
So will Apple buy ARM? I doubt it. If Apple had wanted to own ARM it could have made a serious bid for the company a long time ago and it never did.
But I could be wrong, given this report from The Inquirer:
THE CITY OF LONDON is rife with rumours that Apple is considering a counter-offer for ARM, the British chip design company responsible for the processors at the heart of iPhones and iPads.
The speculation follows the surprise announcement this morning that Japanese multinational SoftBank Group has secured an agreement to acquire ARM in a £24.3bn deal.
However, ARM’s critical importance in the global technology landscape is expected to spark a bidding war for the company, provided that any break-up fee if ARM reneges on the deal is not too high.
“We need to see if there is a break-up clause and how expensive it would be to break the SoftBank deal,” suggested one analyst, speaking anonymously.
It will be very interesting to see if Apple does make an offer for ARM. I’ve also heard Intel, Google and other names being thrown around in the media too. So nobody really knows how this will all play out.
I suspect that the drama surrounding ARM is just beginning.
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